Barriers to Pair Programming (and solutions!)

A hot topic at the New Mexico Computer Science for All (NM-CSforAll) wrap-up meeting held on January 3rd, 2015 at the Santa Fe Institute was barriers to pair programming. NM-CSforAll has been actively promoting and preparing teachers to use of pair programming and peer instruction with our diverse student population that includes a high percentage of Hispanic and Native American students. Over the past two years we have repeatedly heard from participating teachers that these methods are not easy to implement so we set aside time to discuss the barriers teachers encountered and solutions suggested by fellow CS teachers. Here is what we learned:

  • In general, new CS teachers experienced difficulty supporting the wide range of skill levels among students in their CS class(es). Some students had prior experience in computing while others were totally new to computing. When using the pair programming methodology, sometimes the more experienced student did not want to switch out of the “driver” role. Suggestions to deal with this situation included:
    1. Carefully constructing pairs taking into account the needs and dispositions of each student.
    2. Avoid tracking students based on ability.
    3. Monitoring to make sure students switch roles.
    4. Reiterating benefits of pair programming often.
    5. Practice occasional individual programming and reflect on the difficulties of working entirely alone.
  • Communication with fellow students can be difficult for students from different cultures. Suggested interventions included:
    1. Providing students with pair programming prompts such as “what do you think we should do next?”
    2. Showing videos that demonstrate how to “pair program” such as the one from Code.org. (See http://youtu.be/vgkahOzFH2Q)
    3. Practicing and modeling pair programming frequently.
  • Students who come into the class already knowing other students are often unwilling to work with a student they do not know. Suggested solutions included:
    1. Frequently switching the pairings.
    2. Reiterating that pairs will be reassigned often, “it’s not forever.”
    3. Providing students with opportunities for feedback on the pairing and the work produced by the pair.
    4. Using a Gallery walk as an occasion for students to discuss their project with fellow students and find common interests and working styles. Sometimes this leads to new successful partnerships and pairings.

Thanks to the CS teachers who contributed to this discussion: Amanda Dunlap,

Alan Daugherty, Michael Steele, Julie Scott, Rowena Dolino, Melody Hagaman,

Joanna Stitt, Elvira Crockett, Barbara Teterycz, and AnnNet Delaney.

–Irene Lee

CSTA CT Task Force chair

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