A pair programming approach for engaging girls in the Computing classroom: Study results

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Raspberry Pi Foundations Gender Balance in Computing study released some of their findings related to pair programming earlier this month. Pair programming is a teaching approach that involves students working together on a problem to develop programs.The tasks that students have to complete are shared between them, with the learners switching rolls periodically reducing the cognitive load.

While there was no statistically significant evidence that the pair programming approach used for this study positively affected girls’ attitudes towards computing – there were some important takeaways.

Today we share the second report in our series of findings from the Gender Balance in Computing research programme, which we’ve been running as part of the National Centre for Computing Education and with various partners. In this £2.4 million research programme, funded by the Department for Education in England, we aim to identify ways to encourage more female learners to engage with Computing and choose to study it further.

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One teaching approach in computing that promotes collaborative learning is pair programming (a practice also used in industry). This is a structured way of working on programming tasks where learners are paired up and take turns acting as the driver or the navigator. The driver controls the keyboard and mouse and types the code. The navigator reads the instructions, supports the driver by watching out for errors in the code, and thinks strategically about next steps and solutions to problems. Learners swap roles every 5 to 10 minutes, to ensure that both partners can contribute equally and actively to the collaborative learning.

As one part of the Gender Balance in Computing programme, we designed a project to explore the effect of pair programming on girls’ attitudes towards computing. This project builds on research from the USA which suggests that solving problems collaboratively increases girls’ persistence when they encounter difficulties in programming tasks [4].

In the Pair Programming project, we worked with teachers of Year 4 (ages 8–9) and Year 6 (ages 10–11) in schools in England. From January to March 2020, we ran a pilot study with 10 schools and used the resulting teacher feedback to finalise the training and teaching materials for a full randomised controlled trial. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we trained teachers in the pair programming approach using an online course instead of face-to-face training.


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