Assessing concurrency models

By describing a  poorly conceived hypothetical experiment, last week’s article described the “Professor Smith syndrome” consisting of four risks that threaten the validity of empirical software engineering experiments relying on students in a course:

  • Professor Smith Risk 1: possible bias if the evaluator has a stake in the ideas or tools under assessment.
  • Professor Smith Risk 2: creating different levels of motivation in the different groups (Hawthorne effect).
  • Professor Smith Risk 3: extrapolating from students to professionals.
  • Professor Smith Risk 4: violation of educational ethics if the experiment may cause some students to learn better than others.

If you have developed a great new method or tool and would like to assess it, the best way to address Risk 1 is to find someone else to do the assessment. What if  this solution is not practical? Recently we wanted to get some empirical evidence on the merits of the SCOOP (Simple Concurrent Object-Oriented Programming) approach to concurrency [1, 2], on which I have worked for a long time and which is now part of EiffelStudio since the release of 6.8 a couple of weeks ago. We wanted to see if, despite the Professor Smith risks, we could do a credible study ourselves.

The ETH Software Architecture course[3], into which we introduced some introductory material on concurrency last year (as part of a general effort to push more concurrency into software courses at ETH), looked like a good place to try an evaluation; it is a second-year course, where students, or so we thought, would have little prior experience in concurrent software design.

The study’s authors — Sebastian Nanz, Faraz Torshizi and Michela Pedroni — paid special attention to the methodological issues. To judge for yourself whether we addressed them properly, you can read the current version of our paper to be presented at ESEM 2011 [4]. Do note that it is a draft and that we will improve the paper for final publication.

Here is some of what we did. I will not address the Professor Smith Risk 3, the use of students, which (as Lionel Briand has pointed out in a comment on the previous article) published work has studied; in a later article I will give  references to some of that work. But we were determined to tackle the other risks explicitly, so as to obtain credible results.

The basic experiment was a session in which the students were exposed to two different design methods for concurrent software: multithreaded programming in Java, which I’ll call “Java Threads”, and SCOOP. We wanted to explore whether it is easier to program in SCOOP than in Java. This is too general a hypothesis, so it was refined into three concrete hypotheses: is it easier to understand a SCOOP program? Is it easier to find errors in SCOOP programs? Do programmers using SCOOP make fewer errors?

A first step towards reducing the effect — Professor Smith Risk 1 — of any emotional attachment of the experimenters  to one of the approaches, SCOOP in our case, was to generalize the study. Although what directly interested us was to compare SCOOP against Java Threads, we designed the study as a general scheme to compare concurrency approaches; SCOOP and Java Threads are just an illustration, but anyone else interested in assessing concurrency techniques — say Erlang versus C# concurrency — can apply the same methodology. This decision had two benefits: it freed the study from dependency on the particular techniques, hence, we hope, reducing bias; and as side attraction of the kind that is hard for researchers to resist, it increased the publishability of the results.

Circumstances unexpectedly afforded us another protection against any for-SCOOP bias: unbeknownst to us at the time of the study’s design, a first-year course had newly added (in 2009, whereas our study was performed in 2010) an introduction to concurrent programming — using Java Threads! While we had thought that concurrency in any form would be new to most students, in fact almost all of them had now seen Java Threads before. (The new material in the first-year course was taken by ETH students only, but many transfer students had also already had an exposure to Java Threads.) On the other hand, students had not had any prior introduction to SCOOP. So any advantage that one of the approaches may have had because of students’ prior experience would work against our hypotheses. This unexpected development would not help if the study’s results heavily favored Java Threads, but if they favored SCOOP it would reinforce their credibility.

A particular pedagogical decision was made regarding the teaching of our concurrency material: it started with a self-study rather than a traditional lecture. One of the reasons for this decision was purely pedagogical: we felt (and the course evaluations confirmed) that at that stage of the semester the students would enjoy a break in the rhythm of the course. But another reason was to avoid any bias that might have arisen from any difference in the lecturers’ levels of enthusiasm and effectiveness in teaching the two approaches. In the first course session devoted to concurrency, students were handed study materials presenting Java Threads and SCOOP and containing a test to be taken; the study’s results are entirely based on their answers to these tests. The second session was a traditional lecture presenting both approaches again and comparing them. The purpose of this lecture was to make sure the students got the full picture with the benefit of a teacher’s verbal explanations.

The study material was written carefully and with a tone as descriptive and neutral as possible. To make comparisons meaningful, it does not follow a structure specific to Java Threads or  SCOOP  (as we might have used had we taught only one of these approaches); instead it relies in both cases on the same overall plan  (figure 2 of the paper), based on a neutral analysis of concurrency concepts and issues: threads, mutual exclusion, deadlock etc. Each section then presents, for one such general concurrency question, the solution proposed by Java Threads or SCOOP.

This self-study material, as well as everything else about the study, is freely available on the Web; see the paper for the links.

In the self-study, all students studied both the Java Threads and SCOOP materials. They were randomly assigned to two groups, for which the only difference was the order of studying the approaches. We feel that this decision addresses the ethical issue (Professor Smith Risk 4): any pedagogical effect of reading about A before B rather than the reverse, in the course of a few hours, has to be minimal if you end up reading about the two of them, and on the next day follow a lecture that also covers both.

Having all students study both approaches — a crossover approach in the terminology of [5] — should also address the Hawthorne effect (Professor Smith Risk 2): students have no particular incentive to feel that one of the approaches is more hip than the other. While they are not told that SCOOP is partly the work of the instructors, some of them may know or guess this information; the consequences, positive or negative, are limited, since they are asked in both cases to do as well as they can in answering the assessment questions.

The design of that evaluation is another crucial element in trying to avoid bias. We tried, to the extent possible, to base the assessment on objective criteria. For the first hypothesis (program understanding) the technique was to ask the students to predict the output of some simple concurrent programs. To address the risk of a binary correct/incorrect assessment, and get a more fine-grained view, we devised the programs so that they would produce output strings and measured the Levenshtein (edit) distance to the correct result. For the second hypothesis (ease of program debugging), we gave students programs exhibiting typical errors in both approaches and asked them to tell us both the line number of any error they found and an explanation. Assessing the explanation required human analysis; the idea of also assigning partial credit for pointing out a line number without providing a good explanation is that it may be meaningful that a student found that something is amiss even without being quite able to define what it is. The procedure for the third hypothesis (producing programs with fewer errors) was more complex and required two passes over the result; it requires some human analysis, as you will see in the article, but we hope that the two-pass process removes any bias.

This description of the study is only partial and you should read the article [4] for the full details of the procedure.

So what did we find in the end? Does SCOOP really makes concurrency easier to learn, concurrent programs easier to debug, and concurrent programmers less error-prone? Here too  I will refer you to the article. Let me simply mention that the results held some surprises.

In obtaining these results we tried very hard to address the Professor Smith syndrome and its four risks. Since all of our materials, procedures and data are publicly accessible, described in some detail in the paper, you can determine for yourself how well we met this objective, and whether it is possible to perform credible assessments even of one’s own work.


Further reading: for general guidelines on how to conduct empirical research see [5]; for ethical guidelines, applied to psychological research but generalizable, see [6].

[1] SCOOP Eiffel documentation, available here.

[2] SCOOP project documentation at ETH, available here.

[3] Software Architecture course at ETH, course page (2011).

[4] Sebastian Nanz, Faraz Torshizi, Michela Pedroni and Bertrand Meyer: Design of an Empirical Study for Comparing the Usability of Concurrent Programming Languages, to appear in ESEM 2011 (ACM/IEEE International Symposium on Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement), 22-23 September 2011. Draft available here.

[5] Barbara A. Kitchenham, Shari L. Pfleeger, Lesley M. Pickard, Peter W. Jones, David C. Hoaglin, Khaled El-Emam and Jarrett Rosenberg: Preliminary Guidelines for Empirical Research in Software Engineering, national Research Council Canada (NRC-CNRC), Report ERB-1082, 2001, available here.

[6] Robert Rosenthal: Science and ethics in conducting, analyzing, and reporting psychological research, in  Psychological Science, 5, 1994, p127-134. I found a copy cached by a search engine here.

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