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Communications of the ACM


An Agile Approach to Learning Programming

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I recently read a book called Rework and had a revelation. I have been an inefficient software engineer and flat out showstopper at times throughout my career. Like many previous books, Rework claims that you can create your own business. What makes this approach different is that it shows you that most of the obstacles are you. To oversimplify, just make progress, inch forward, build something that works and refine later. In other words, take an Agile approach. Rework convinced me that my obstacles are not really obstacles. Now my new business venture is almost a reality. Finally. 

I quickly realized that the lessons I learned from Rework are applicable to other areas of my life. One such area is teaching. I teach programming to students and industry professionals. I often see new programmers struggle with basic, fundamental concepts. I have found that taking an Agile approach to teaching these students is extremely effective.

First, most programming books, even beginner books, are overwhelming. New programmers find it intimidating when faced with everything that a programming language has to offer. In reality, a programmer only needs a subset of commands to complete a given task. And it is not necessary to learn multiple ways to complete a task, when all you need is one. So I wrote The Super Simple Programming Book to teach basic programming concepts using the Python programming language. The book is a quick read, with lots of short, clear programming examples. Its purpose is to give a brief introduction, teach fundamental programming concepts, and help the programmer quickly move on to more advanced concepts. This is iteration, quick learning, and progress, just like Agile and Rework.

Second, my classes incorporate elements of the Agile methodology. A class is like a sprint planning meeting. I describe the content and assignments for the week, and there is a classroom discussion. At the end of the class, students begin the sprint (i.e., learning). We even have a Slack team to conduct real-time, persistent chats outside of the classroom. Students may submit assignments (e.g., prototypes) early, get feedback, and resubmit for full credit. At the start of the next class, there is a sprint retrospective; students describe what went well and what was difficult. This is also an opportunity for me to enhance course materials for the next class. And the process repeats (iterative).

My teaching method loosely follows the Agile method, but it is Agile nonetheless. Ever since I started using this approach, I have noticed a significant improvement in grades and student attitudes. Students often say things like, "your class makes programming easy" or "I never understood programming until now". Agile lets you learn as you go and build on that learning. It has worked well in my classes.

Edwin Torres is a full-time software engineer at The MITRE Corporation and an adjunct professor of computer science at Monmouth University. Contact Edwin on Twitter @realEdwinTorres.


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