Programming is often perceived as a math-intensive field, which, let’s face it, can be intimidating for anyone contemplating it. A new study, however, suggests that language and problem-solving skills are more reliable predictors of how quickly a person learns a programming language than mathematical aptitude.
Language > math
Researchers at the University of Washington recruited 42 participants who joined a coding course through Codeacademy. Each participant completed ten 45-minute-long lessons that initiated them in coding with Python.
Before they enrolled, the participants completed a series of tests designed to assess their math, working memory, problem solving, and second language learning abilities.
The test results were correlated with the course’s completion metrics, including how well a student understood the lessons and the rate at which they completed checkpoints.
By the end of the study, 36 participants had completed the course. By comparing the test results before and after the Python course, the researchers could determine the weight of memory, problem-solving, language, and mathematical abilities when it comes to predicting successful learning.
While participants learned how to code in Python at different rates, the researchers found that problem solving and working memory were the most associated with how well students were able to program. Meanwhile, both general cognitive skills and language aptitude were associated with how quickly they learned to code.
In fact, aptitude for a second language accounted for almost 20% of the difference in how quickly the students learned Python, while math could account for just 2% of the variation.
This suggests that language skills are more important than numerical aptitudes when it comes to learning how to code, despite folk wisdom.
What’s more, the researchers also measured the brain activity of the participants through electroencephalography (EEG) prior to the online learning tasks. The EGG measured patterns of brain activity while the subjects were relaxed and basically doing nothing.
Electrical activity at rest has various patterns, including slow waves called beta oscillations. Previously, researchers showed that these oscillations in brain activity are linked to the ability to learn a second language. Participants who scored high on the Python course also tended to have higher levels of beta oscillations.
Taken together, these findings show that language abilities might be more important than mathematical skills when learning computer science.
Girls, who tend to have higher language skills than boys on average, typically avoid computer science because they may feel intimidated by stereotypes of a math-intensive environment.
However, this study shows that girls ought to do just as well as boys at coding, if not better.