Licentiate thesis 2007-002

Students Working with a Large Software System: Experiences and Understandings

Jonas Boustedt

24 May 2007


This monograph describes an empirical study with the overall aim of producing insights about how students experience the subject Computer Science and its learning environments, particularly programming and software engineering.

The research takes a start in the students' world, from their perspective, using their stories, and hence, we have chosen a phenomenographic approach for our research. By interpreting the students' descriptions and experiences of various phenomena and situations, it is possible to gain knowledge about which different conceptions students can have and how teaching and the learning environment affect their understanding. In this study, we focus specifically on students' conceptions of aspects of object-oriented programming and their experiences of problem solving situations in connection with object-oriented system development.

The questions posed enlighten and focus on the students' conceptions of both tangible and abstract concepts; the study investigates how students experienced a task concerning development in a specific software system, how they conceived the system itself, and how the students describe the system's plugin modules. Academic education in programming deals with abstract concepts, such as interfaces in the programming language Java. Hence, one of the questions in this study is how students describe that specific abstract concept, in a context where they are conducting a realistic software engineering task.

The results show that there is a distinct variation of descriptions, spanning from a concrete to-do list, to a more advanced description where the interface plays a crucial role in order to produce dynamic and adaptive systems. The discussion interprets the results and suggests how we can use them in teaching to provide an extended and varied understanding, where the educational goal is to provide for and strengthen the conditions for students to be able to learn how to develop and understand advanced software.

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