Teaching: Introductory C++ Programming

It's strange that I'm the only tutor for our Computer Science and Information Systems department, but I can live with that. What irks me though, is how these students come to gain their knowledge about programming.

To be fair, I will not mention names or place blame. I truly believe this to be a simple matter of miscommunication and easily solved. I also feel that the scope of these classes needs to be monitored a little more closely and what follows is my proposal for what should be taught in an introductory programming course contrasted with my understanding of what is currently being taught in our introductory courses.

The courses in question are our first introductory classes to C++ (101 and 201). These courses together should leave the student comfortable with the basic constructs and built-ins of C++. It should also make them comfortable with classes and working in an object oriented programming (OOP) paradigm. The problem crops up in the transition between these two courses. It seems (and this I know thanks to my tutees) that their understanding of the basics gets muddled in the first course, and thus they cannot build upon this knowledge in the second course. I have heard many things about what may be happening wrong in this course to cause such a calamity, but let us refocus and start by going over what should be covered in the first class in order to succeed in the following course and program.

In an introductory programming course it should be important for students to become familiar with functions, control structures, and various keywords (not all of them mind you, just most of them). Thus they should be comfortable looking through a piece of code like the following and have an understanding of the majority of it:

#include <iostream>
#include <cstdlib>

using namespace std;

int factorial(int n)
    if (n == 0)
        return 1;
    return n * factorial(n - 1);

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
    if (argc != 2)
        cerr << "You must pass a number to get the factorials!" << endl;
        return EXIT_FAILURE;

    int n = argv[1] + 1;

    while (--n, n > 0)
        cout << "The factorial of " << n << " is " << factorial(n) << "." << endl;

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;

The students should also be able to understand Makefiles (rudimentary Makefiles not automake or anything of its ilk), header files versus source files, the stages of compiling and how to deal with different errors in each (i.e. a linking error versus a compilation error), and they should understand array mechanics (if not exactly what they are then how to use them). They should be able to put all of this together, and make a nice modular program that allows them to expand and reuse code in an intelligent way. Then if there is time (although this gets covered in great detail in the secod course) a quick coverage of structs should ensue. At this point the eduction they should have gained from the first class should be enough of the basics that they understand the constructs of the language and can start reading simple programs like the one above.

In reality, this goal (mind you this is my personal goal and does not reflect the goals of the professors or the department) was not met, and based on experience with people I'm tutoring who are in the second course at this time, it is quite obvious where their shortcomings are. Those shortcomings are outlined below:

  • Lack of understanding as to how looping control structures function
  • Lack of knowledge as to how arrays function and how to use them
  • Lack of knowledge as to how the compiler actually takes the source code (possibly spread over many files) and makes an executable
  • Lack of understanding as to how to solve simple problems like manipulating all of the entries in an array
  • Lack of understanding as to how to do a simple search or utilize functions provided in an advanced programming interface (API)


This list will be updated appropriately as I gain more knowledge on what the students actually know. Thus, this list may have inaccuracies and shortcomings and may not reflect reality.

The list goes on in much the same fashion here after, and this is obviously a product of the course not fulfilling its primary purpose of laying down a foundation that the students can build on. To better acheive this goal it may be necessary to recommend some supplemental texts (see the list at the end of this article for recommended books for the various programming courses).

Now, what I've heard reports of in this class is the following:

  1. The concepts outlined above are not getting covered in the detail taht is required of them in the subsequent classes (which only confirms what I've observed in students)
  2. There has been a report that a new teaching tool, Alice , was used in the introduction course

The first point appears to just be a shortcoming of the class and could be ameliorated by spending more time going over more examples of the concepts in question.

Also, the students themselves need to realize that they can control their education and must participate for a class to truly be successful for them. When entering a class, students should think to themselves, "What do I want from this class and how can I have this class help me achieve that goal?" By asking questions and looking for more material on the specific area of study the student is interested in, they can get a much more fulfilling experience and better understanding of the topics involved, but they may hit a point where they just can't keep up with the course and need further assistance that isn't self-guided. Tutors are available from the tutoring department, and should not be shied away from. If a student really wants to learn the material, they have to be willing to get help and help themself towards that goal. That's only part of the problem, students who do try are still having a hard time within the status quo.

The second point requires that I do not put forth my personal opinion, but does require that I state its purpose (from the Alice website):

Alice is an innovative 3-D programming environment that makes it easy to
create an animation for telling a story, playing an interactive game, or a
video to share on the web.  Alice is a freely available teaching tool
designed to be a student's first exposure to object-oriented programming.
It allows students to learn fundamental programming concepts in the
context of creating animated movies and simple video games.  In Alice, 3-D
objects (e.g., people, animals, and vehicles) populate a virtual world and
students create a program to animate the objects.

In Alice's interactive interface, students drag and drop graphic tiles to
create a program, where the instructions correspond to standard statements
in a production oreinted programming language, such as Java, C++, and C#.
Alice allows students to immediately see how their animation programs run,
enabling them to easily understand the relationship between the
programming statements and the behavior of objects in their animation.  By
manipulating the objects in their virtual world, students gain experience
with all the programming constructs typically taught in an introductory
programming course.

In conclusion, it is my perception that there is a missing communication link in the way these courses are handled, but it's not just between the professors of the two courses (they seem to hot a smooth break between the courses), it's between the students and the professors that the communication has really broken down. The students must speak up for their education or they may see it going down a path that does not maximally further their education. This is wider spread than just the simple course example I've given here. Almost everywhere one looks, it seems that students are becoming more lethargic; pushing to just get through the courses. There is a lack of genuine interest in the education being provided, and more of a view that college is now a necessity to continue in society. Fortunately, we can still fight for the freedom of our minds.

Supplemental Texts for CSIS Courses

CSIS 152:
CSIS 252:
CSIS 352:


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