Do Computer Science Students Understand Their Programming Task?—A Case Study of Solving the Josephus Variant Problem

  •  Andreas Febrian    
  •  Oenardi Lawanto    


The ability of students to problem solve begins with interpreting the problem. When they interpret the problem inaccurately, they will likely use ineffective strategies or fail to solve the problem. Studies reported students are often incapable of identifying and articulating the problem goal, requirements/constraints, and expected output. In other words, students lack self-regulation skills, especially related to task understanding. In this study, two male and two female senior computer science students from Utah State University, USA, were recruited as research participants to learn more about their task understanding skills while engage in programming tasks. The participants were asked to answer five programming problems while thinking aloud, and their responses were video- and audio-recorded. This report focuses on one of the problems, which was a variant of the Josephus problem. Three research questions were used to guide the analysis: (a) what were the participants’ initial task understanding; (b) how did it change during the problem-solving endeavor; and (c) why did it change. All participants identified the problem goal inaccurately and as a result, selected ineffective problem-solving strategies. The analysis suggested their inaccurate task interpretations were caused by their confidence bias (i.e., a systematic cognitive error), in which they drew knowledge and strategies from irrelevant experience. Out of four participants, only one was able to defeat the confidence bias and acquired an accurate task understanding; the influencing factors and possible interventions to overcome confidence bias are discussed.

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