Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Working Through the Stages of Debugging

I found this Tweet by Katerina Borodina @ctrlshifti that claimed that the 5 stages of grief apply perfectly to debugging code

  1. Denial "The compiler is wrong" 
  2. Anger "Why the hell isn't it working?"
  3. Bargaining "If I use enough print statements I'll figure this out"
  4. Depression "I will never fix this bug"
  5. Acceptance "It's a feature"

We see students going through these stages al the time. Well, actually what we often see is them not making it all the way through. As teachers we need to help them through. Learning to deal with debugging is an important, if under acknowledged, part of the job.

Denial is where many students start to ask for help. After all if the compiler is wrong there is nothing they can do to fix it is there? Sometimes this is expressed as “my code is the same as [yours/theirs] but mine doesn’t work.” Of course the code is never the same but the student is not looking closely enough. At this point a teacher has to decide if they should point out the error or ask the student to keep looking. Or ask them to have another student look at it. We need to find that balance between promoting self sufficiency and letting frustration build up to far.

If we’re lucky they move on to anger. Yes, anger is not always bad. It can be motivating. We do have to keep an eye on it though and at some point help with some debugging suggestions so that they keep trying.

Bargaining is when a lot of learning goes on. We can show them how to use breakpoints in the IDE, make suggestions at where to look, and so on. Bargaining in this case is where the real effort comes into play.

Depression is where I think a teacher really needs to step in. In fact this is the point where I think automatized hint systems will never replace teachers. Students need encouragement. They need to know that they are not stupid and that many others have the same issues. They need to know that they just need practice and perhaps a bit more knowledge. And they need to know that they are not alone.

Deciding that it is a feature may, in rare occasions, be acceptable though it really is more of a standing joke than reality. I see acceptance as understanding that sometimes we all need help and that is ok. Helping students accept that programming can be a “team sport” is an important lesson. Getting the bug fixed is very satisfying. That leads to self acceptance which is where we really want our students to get.

1 comment:

Garth said...

I live in 1, 2, and 3.