Berland, M., Martin, T., Benton, T., Petrick Smith, C., & Davis, D. (2013). Using learning analytics to understand the learning pathways of novice programmers. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 22(4), 564-599.


Type: Empirical

Purpose: Using learning analytics, the authors explore how students progress from exploration, through tinkering, to refinement, a pathway that they term EXTIRE.

Findings: Tinkering can be a valuable approach for novices.There is not a clear linear path from worse to better, and the paths taken by different students were different. There was an “epistemological pluralism” (Turkle & Papert, 1990) to their approaches; the students generally wandered through a few relatively similar patterns of activity given the huge space of possible approaches and possible programs. The rapid feedback of the IPRO environment enabled students to evaluate their programs extremely frequently, and students fussed and experimented frequently. Students’ best programs got much better over time, but students were, not surprisingly, still not expert programmers after 90 min of work. The average program quality of student programs grew significantly but modestly.

Recommendations: Instructors should more clearly articulate descriptions of tinkering and situate it in the context of exploration and refinement.


Sample Size: 53

Participant Type: Female high school students only (novice programmers - medium prior experience). Most of them were juniors (35) and the rest sophomores.

Notes: Students participated in a week long, game development summer camp; students stayed on campus, collaborated on games, and met professional computer scientists. Data from the camp were analyzed using IPRO, a programming game for iOS devices.