December 31, 2021 12:13 PM

An Experience Rewriting a Piece of Code as as Teaching Tool

Over the last four or five offerings of my compiler course, I have been making progress in how I teach code generation, with teams becoming increasingly successful at producing a working code generator. In the 2019 offering, students asked a few new questions about some low-level mechanical issues in the run-time system. So I whipped up a simple one the night before class, both to refamiliarize myself with the issues and to serve as a potential example. It was not a great piece of software, but it was good enough for a quick in-class demo and as a seed for discussion.

Jump ahead to 2021. As I mentioned in my previous post, this fall's group had a lot more questions about assembly language, the run-time stack, activation records, and the like. When I pulled out my demo run-time system from last time, I found that it didn't help them as much as it had the previous group. The messiness of the code got in the way. Students couldn't see the bigger picture from the explanatory comments, and the code itself seemed opaque to them.

Working with a couple of students in particular, I began to refine the code. First, I commented the higher-level structure of generator more clearly. I then used those comments to reorganize the code bit, with the goal of improving the instructional presentation rather than the code's efficiency or compactness. I chose to leave some comments in rather than to factor out functions, because the students found the linear presentation easier to follow.

Finally, I refined some sections of the code and rewrote others entirely, to make them clearer. At this point, I did extract a helper function or two in an attempty not to obscure the story the program was telling with low-level details.

I worked through two iterations of this process: comment, reorganize, rewrite. At the end, I had a piece of code that is pretty good, and one that is on the student's path to a full code generator.

Of course, I could have designed my software up front and proceeded more carefully as I wrote this code. I mean, professionals and academics understand compiler construction pretty well. The result might well have been a better example of what the run-time generator should look like when students are done.

But I don't think that would have been as helpful to most members of my class. This process was much more like how my students program, and how many of us program, frankly, when we are first learning a new domain. Following this process, and working in direct response to questions students had as we discussed the code, gave me insights into some of the challenges they encounter in my course, including tracking register usage and seeing how the calling and return sequences interact. I teach these ideas in class, but my students were seeing that material as too abstract. They couldn't make the leap to code quite as easily as I had hoped; they were working concretely from the start.

In the end, I ended up with both a piece of code I like and a better handle on how my students approach the compiler project. In terms of outcomes assessment, this experience gives me some concrete ideas for improving the prerequisite courses students take before my course, such as computer organization. More immediately, it helps me improve the instruction in my own course. I have some ideas about how I can reorganize my code generator units and how I might simplify some of my pedagogical material. This may lead to a bigger redesign of the course in a coming semester.

I must admit: I had a lot of fun writing this code -- and revising and improving it! One bit of good news from the experience is that the advice I give in class is pretty good. If they follow my practical suggestions for writing their code, they can be successful. What needs improvement now is finding ways for students to have the relevant bits of advice at hand when they need them. Concrete advice that gets separated from concrete practice tends to get lost in the wind.

Finally, this experience reminded me first hand that the compiler project is indeed a challenge. It's fun, but it's a challenge, especially for undergrads attempting to write their first large piece of software as part of a team. There may be ways I can better help them to succeed.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Software Development, Teaching and Learning

December 28, 2021 5:31 PM

Thinking Back on My Compiler Course This Fall

Well, fall semester really got away from me quickly. It seems not long ago that I wrote of launching the course with a renewed mindset of "compilers for the masses, not compilers for compiler people". I'm not sure how well that went this time, as many students came into the course with less understanding of the underlying machine model and assembly language than ever before. As a result, many of them ended up stressing over low-level implementation details while shoring up that knowledge than thinking about some of the higher-level software engineering ideas. I spent more time this semester working with more teams to help them understand parsing rules, semantic actions, and activation records than in anytime I can remember.

I suspect that the students' programming maturity and state of knowledge at the start of the course are in large part a result of experiencing the previous two and a half semesters under the damper of the pandemic. Some classes were online, others were hybrid, and all were affected by mitigation efforts, doubt, and stress. Students and professors alike faced these effects, me included, and while everyone has been doing the best they could under the circumstances, sometimes the best we can do comes up a little short.

At the beginning of the course, I wrote about a particular uncertainty raised by the preceding pandemic semesters: how isolation and the interruption of regular life had reduced the chances for students to make friends in the major and to build up personal and professional connections with their classmates. I underestimated, I think, the effect that the previous year and a half would have on learning outcomes in our courses.

The effect on project teams themselves turned out to be a mixed bag. Three of the five teams worked pretty well together, even if one of the teammates was unable to contribute equally to the project. That's pretty typical. Two other teams encountered more serious difficulties working together effectively. Difficulties derailed one project that got off to an outstanding start, and the second ended up being a one-person show (a very impressive one-person show, in fact). In retrospect, many of these challenges can be traced back to problems some students had with content: they found themselves falling farther behind their teammates and responded by withdrawing from group work. The result is a bad experience for those still plugging along.

That's perhaps too many words about the difficulties. Several teams seemed to have pretty typical experiences working one another, even though they didn't really know each other before working together.

The combination of some students struggling with course content and some struggling with collaboration led to mixed bag of results. Two teams produced working compilers that handled essentially all language features correctly, or nearly so. That's pretty typical for a five-team semester. One team produced an incomplete system, but one they could be proud of after working pretty hard the entire semester. That's typical, too.

Two teams produced systems without code generators beyond a rudimentary run-time system. That's a bit unusual. These teams were disappointed because they had set much higher goals for themselves. Many of these students were taking heavy course and research loads and, unfortunately, all that work eventually overwhelmed them. I think I felt as bad for them as they did, knowing what they might have accomplished with a more forgiving schedule. I do hope they found some value in the course and will be able to look back on the experience as worthwhile. They learned a lot about working on a big project, and perhaps about themselves.

What about me? A few weeks into the course, I declared that I was programming like a student again, trying to implement the full compiler project I set before my students. Like many of my students, I accomplished some of my goals and fell short when outside obstacles got in the way. One the front end, my scanner is in great shape, while my parser is correct but in need of some refactoring. At that point in the semester, I got busy both with department duties and with working one on one with the teams, and my productivity dropped off.

I did implement a solid run-time system, one I am rather happy with. My work on it came directly out of answering students' questions about code generation and working with them to investigate and debug their programs. I'll have more to say about my run-time system in the next post.

So, my latest compiler course is in the books. All in all, my students and I did about as well as we could under the circumstances. There is still great magic in watching a team's compiler generate an executable, then running that executable on an input that produces tens of thousands of activation records and executes several million lines of assembly. The best we can do is often quite good enough.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Software Development, Teaching and Learning