Students vs. professionals in software engineering experiments

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Experiments are an essential component of any engineering discipline. When the experiments involve people, as subjects in the experiment, it is crucial that the subjects are representative of the population of interest.

Academic researchers have easy access to students, but find it difficult to recruit professional developers, as subjects.

If the intent is to generalize the results of an experiment to the population of students, then using student as subjects sounds reasonable.

If the intent is to generalize the results of an experiment to the population of professional software developers, then using student as subjects is questionable.

What it is about students that makes them likely to be very poor subjects, to use in experiments designed to learn about the behavior and performance of professional software developers?

The difference between students and professionals is practice and experience. Professionals have spent many thousands of hours writing code, attending meetings discussing the development of software; they have many more experiences of the activities that occur during software development.

The hours of practice reading and writing code gives professional developers a fluency that enables them to concentrate on the problem being solved, not on technical coding details. Yes, there are students who have this level of fluency, but most have not spent the many hours of practice needed to achieve it.

Experience gives professional developers insight into what is unlikely to work and what may work. Without experience students have no way of evaluating the first idea that pops into their head, or a situation presented to them in an experiment.

People working in industry are well aware of the difference between students and professional developers. Every year a fresh batch of graduates start work in industry. The difference between a new graduate and one with a few years experience is apparent for all to see. And no, Masters and PhD students are often not much better and in some cases worse (their prolonged sojourn in academia means that have had more opportunity to pick up impractical habits).

It’s no wonder that people in industry laugh when they hear about the results from experiments based on student subjects.

Just because somebody has “software development” in their job title does not automatically make they an appropriate subject for an experiment targeting professional developers. There are plenty of managers with people skills and minimal technical skills (sub-student level in some cases)

In the software related experiments I have run, subjects were asked how many lines of code they had read/written. The low values started at 25,000 lines. The intent was for the results of the experiments to be generalized to the population of people who regularly wrote code.

Psychology journals are filled with experimental papers that used students as subjects. The intent is to generalize the results to the general population. It has been argued that students are not representative of the general population in that they have spent more time reading, writing and reasoning than most people. These subjects have been labeled as WEIRD.

I spend a lot of time reading software engineering papers. If a paper involves human subjects, the first thing I do is find out whether the subjects were students (usual) or professional developers (not common). Authors sometimes put effort into dressing up their student subjects as having professional experience (perhaps some of them have spent a year or two in industry, but talking to the authors often reveals that the professional experience was tutoring other students), others say almost nothing about the identity of the subjects. Papers describing experiments using professional developers, trumpet this fact in the abstract and throughout the paper.

I usually delete any paper using student subjects, some of the better ones are kept in a subdirectory called students.

Software engineering researchers are currently going through another bout of hand wringing over the use of student subjects. One paper makes the point that a student based experiment is a good way of validating an experiment that will later involve professional developers. This is a good point, but ignored the problem that researchers rarely move on to using professional subjects; many researchers only ever intend to run student-based experiments. Also, they publish the results from the student based experiment, which are at best misleading (but academics get credit for publishing papers, not for the content of the papers).

Researchers are complaining that reviews are rejecting their papers on student based experiments. I’m pleased to hear that reviewers are rejecting these papers.