Performance Preconceptions

Posted on 10 October 2022.

What do computer science students entering post-secondary (collegiate) education think “performance” means?

Who or what shapes these views?

How accurate are these views?

And how correctable are their mistakes?

These questions are not merely an idle curiosity. How students perceive performance impacts how they think about program design (e.g., they may think a particular design is better but still not use it because they think it’s less performant). It also affects their receptiveness to new programming languages and styles (“paradigms”) of programming. Anecdotally, we have seen exactly these phenomena at play in our courses.

We are especially interested in students who have had prior computer science (in secondary school), such as students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the US. These students often have significant prior computing, but we have studied relatively little about the downstream consequences of these courses. Indeed, performance considerations are manifest in material as early as the age 4–8 curriculum from!

This paper takes a first step in examining these issues. We find that students have high confidence in incorrect answers on material they should have little confidence about. To address these problems, we try multiple known techniques from the psychology and education literature — the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, and Refutation Texts — that have been found to work in several other domains. We see that they have little impact here.

This work has numerous potential confounds based on the study design and location of performance. Therefore, we don’t view this as a definitive result, but rather as a spur to start an urgently-needed conversation about factors that affect post-secondary computer science education. Concretely, as we discuss in the discussion sections, we also believe there is very little we know about how students conceive of “performance”, and question whether our classical methods for approaching it are effective.

The paper is split into a short paper, that summarizes the results, an an extensive appendix, which provides all the details and justifies the summary. Both are available online.