The difficulty in understanding compiler error messages can be a major impediment to novice student learning. To alleviate this issue, multiple researchers have run experiments enhancing compiler error messages in automated assessment tools for programming assignments. The conclusions reached by these published experiments appear to be conflicting. We examine these experiments and propose five potential reasons for the inconsistent conclusions concerning enhanced compiler error messages: (1) students do not read them, (2) researchers are measuring the wrong thing, (3) the effects are hard to measure, (4) the messages are not properly designed, (5) the messages are properly designed, but students do not understand them in context due to increased cognitive load. We constructed mixed-methods experiments designed to address reasons 1 and 5 with a specific automated assessment tool, Athene, that previously reported inconclusive results. Testing student comprehension of the enhanced compiler error messages outside the context of an automated assessment tool demonstrated their effectiveness over standard compiler error messages. Quantitative results from a 60 minute one-on-one think-aloud study with 31 students did not show substantial increase in student learning outcomes over the control. However, qualitative results from the one-on-one thinkaloud study indicated that most students are reading the enhanced compiler error messages and generally make effective changes after encountering them.
Prather, James R.; Pettit, Raymond; McMurry, Kayla Holcomb; Peters, Alani; Homer, John; Simone, Nevan; and Cohen, Maxine, "On Novices' Interaction with Compiler Error Messages: A Human Factors Approach" (2017). School of Information Technology and Computing. 4.
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