CCSE Thinkathon Paper wins ITiCSE ACM Europe Best Paper Award

Published: 30 July 2019

A paper about a pen-and-paper intervention for CS1CT students submitted by members of the CCSE won the ACM Europe Best Paper Award at ITiCSE 2019

Some of you may remember notices in the School in early December pointing students to a Thinkathon. No, not a Hackathon, a Thinkathon! We put on this event, over three consecutive evenings, for CS-1CT students. Why? Turned out that our tutors were finding many students didn’t understand the running code that they were writing. If getting correct programs was all that mattered, that would have been fine - but the tutors reported this just 23 days before the students were to sit the degree exam - where they would need to understand everything thoroughly to be able to answer program comprehension and problem solving questions correctly, first-time, with no help.

During the Thinkathon we extended time for students to work on a large question bank, with other students and tutors, in a convivial atmosphere in the evening, with an emphasis on deep understanding. Think, not hack. Chris generously provided funding for pizza and juice. After frantically writing questions for 3 weeks, we had well over 200 questions organised into 5 different areas.

We collected pre and post survey data from the students and were able to map attendance to final exam score. The CCSE devoted more than one of its seminar/discussion sessions on a Monday lunchtime to develop the concept beforehand and reflect on it afterwards. This worked really well, drawing on the wide experience and points of view of the team, including academics from Psychology, Education, Physics, the Business School and IT Services. Accounting for prior experience, and access to the materials on-line, we determined that attending the Thinkathon sessions resulted in statistically significantly better results in the final exam. One student wrote ”helped me to really think about a program before writing it. Before, I’d just write anything that came to mind and fix it until it worked but now I tend to get correct solutions the first or second attempt at a problem.”

A detailed write-up was created, and submitted a paper which was accepted to the ITiCSE conference, 15-17th July. We were delighted to learn just before the conference that it had been awarded Best Paper by ACM Europe, which garners not only a pretty certificate, but also £1000 to share between the authors.

The key to the concept is that we managed to transfer the enthusiasm seen in Hackathon events - where everyone is welcomed, no matter what their level, and all that really matters is a working program, no matter how it works - across to what on the face of it may seem much more boring - developing the skills to deeply understand and be able to explain your programs.

Thanks to co-authors Matt Barr, Mireilla Bikanga Ada, Peter Donaldson, Steve Draper, Jack Parkinson, Jeremy Singer and Lovisa Sundin, and to other members of the CCSE and reading group who helped in diverse ways: Niall Barr, Elizabeth Cole, Sarah Honeychurch, Fionnuala Johnson, Derek Somerville and Ethel Tshukudu.

First published: 30 July 2019