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Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Computer Science

Year Degree Awarded

2015

Month Degree Awarded

September

First Advisor

W. Richards Adrion

Second Advisor

Robert Moll

Third Advisor

Barbara Lerner

Fourth Advisor

J. Eliot B. Moss

Subject Categories

Software Engineering

Abstract

FrenchPress is an Eclipse plug-in that partially automates the task of giving students feedback on their Java programs. It is designed not for novices but for students taking their second or third Java course: students who know enough Java to write a working program but lack the judgment to recognize bad code when they see it. FrenchPress does not diagnose compile-time or run-time errors, or logical errors that produce incorrect output. It targets silent flaws, flaws the student is unable to identify for himself because nothing in the programming environment alerts him.

FrenchPress diagnoses flaws characteristic of programmers who have not yet assimilated the object-oriented idiom. Such shortcomings include misuse of the public modifier, fields that should have been local variables, and instance variables that should have been class constants. Other rules address the all too common misunderstanding of the boolean data type. FrenchPress delivers explanatory messages in a vocabulary appropriate for advanced beginners. FrenchPress does not fix the problems it detects; the student must decide whether to change the program.

The plug-in has been tested by undergraduates in the UMass data structures and algorithms course, the target audience for FrenchPress diagnostics. A pilot study took place during winter break 2013-2014 and a preliminary classroom trial in Spring 2014. This dissertation reports results from the final classroom trial covering four programming assignments in Fall 2014. Among students whose code triggered one or more of the diagnostic rules, the percentage who modified their program in response to FrenchPress feedback varied from a high of 59% on the first project to a low of 23% on the second and fourth projects. User satisfaction surveys indicate that among students who said FrenchPress gave them suggestions for improvement, the percentage who found the feedback helpful bounced from around 55% on the first and third assignments to 32-40% on the second and fourth assignments. The lower acceptance on the second and fourth projects corresponds to a higher incidence of false positives and other confusing feedback messages. Nevertheless, the percentage of survey respondents who said they were satisfied with FrenchPress performance ranged from 56% to 66% on all four assignments.

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