Flanagan, M. and Smith, J. (2009) 'From playing to understanding : the transformative potential of discourse versus syntax in learning to program.', in Threshold concepts within the disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp. 91-106.
in their addiction to computer games. However, their mastery of these lucrative products of object-oriented programming (OOP) does not readily translate into an understanding of OOP when presented as a formal first year course. One of the fascinations of teaching programming is that, whilst many students learn to program without apparent difficulty, a significant proportion finds the activity extremely troublesome. This observation may be compounded for students of electronic engineering, where threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2003, 2005) may be ‘nested’ in the curriculum. Such potential thresholds may lie in the concepts of OOP, in the exemplifiers dictated by electronic engineering syllabi or in the linguistics of a computer language itself. Implications for teaching and curriculum redesign vary significantly across this spectrum. In this context, students’ problems appear to arise from two sources: firstly, the form of the programming language which, to paraphrase Andersen (1990), parasitises English but cannot be read as English, an overwhelming threshold conception, or secondly, more localised threshold concepts inherent in OOP itself, such as abstract classes and interfaces. Consequently we have adopted a three-fold schema to discuss these potentially troublesome concepts (Figure 1). The focus in this chapter is on our third stream: students who find that the language itself is a threshold, and cannot make sense of the game’s rule book. These are our operationally challenged students (Smith, 2006). This stream will be discussed in the context of a linguistic challenge. The more localised thresholds associated with the first two streams will be discussed elsewhere.
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