Notes on “Knowledge Organization and Skill Differences in Computer Programmers”

March 30, 2009

Knowledge Organization and Skill Differences in Computer Programmers: Katherine B. McKeithen and Judith S. Reitman.

Weeks ago, Greg asked, “What paper do you wish you had written?”

This is mine.

I tracked down this paper because I found a reference to it as “Chase and Simon applied to computer programmers.” “Chase and Simon applied to computer programmers” has been my pitch for a thesis topic for the past couple weeks.

Here’s the experiment: Show some programmers a computer program. Take it away. Ask them to recreate it. Show them the program again. Ask them to recreate it. Repeat until they get it completely right. Do this with a computer program that makes sense and one that is scrambled.

The experts do better than novices, but not on the scrambled programs.

There was one key difference from Chase and Simon: Over successive trials, experts programmers leave the novices further and further behind. The authors hypothesize this is because computer program chunks are less easily perceived visually than chess or Go chunks.

There was another experiment in the paper: Give the subjects a list of language keywords and have them memorize them. The novices organized the list fairly haphazardly. The experts organized the list according to semantic relation. It’s not that the experts organize their information more. The experts organize better.

This was a nicely written paper: There was a good number of subjects, a clear experimental design, a nice exposition of the relevant statistics. It was even published in a psychology journal, which would satisfy my psychology-envy. 

This was published in 1981. I am nearly 30 years behind.

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One Response to “Notes on “Knowledge Organization and Skill Differences in Computer Programmers””

  1. Jorge Says:

    *Surely* there’s still plenty of unanswered questions here.

    I understand and have felt the disappointment of discovering that someone’s beaten you to your idea, but these early works are just the beginning of the exploration.


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