Updated Physical Representations of Variables, Objects, and References in APCSA

I’ve been meaning to update my post from 2018 – Physical Representations of Variables, Objects, and References in APCSA with how it has evolved the past two years. The impetus to finally do so is due to attending Colleen Lewis and Hannah McDowell’s CSTA 2020 session, “AP CS A: Physical Models of Java Memory”. Colleen has a document with instructions, examples, videos, everything. What I realized during the session is that my approach was missing the concrete representation; it only had the pictorial and abstract representations. (I love the use of “remote controls” to model references!) So, I’m off to buy materials (I hope I can find stuffed animals that are turtles) and add concrete representations this year. I still want to share some updates on my pictorial models that have evolved over the past two years.

The most important change has been how invoking methods are modeled. I’ve captured this pictorial model in a set of slides (slide 22 – 34). These slides capture the following examples of invoking a method:

In the classroom, white rectangles still map to full sheets of paper (objects) and yellow rectangles still map to sticky notes (variables), as described in my original post. The new addition is the green rectangle, which maps to a green half-sheet of paper in the classroom that is presented as a form that is filled out, turned in, and returned when a method is invoked. The form models a method invocation. There are some parts of the form (arguments) that must be completed before the form is turned in (method is invoked). The field “this” must be completed (for non-static methods). When filling in the form, values are always copied from sticky notes (variables) or literals. There may be a part of the form that is “for office use only”. That is, it is not completed when initially filling out the form but will be completed when the form is returned. This models the return value of the method. When the form is returned, this value is copied from the form to a sticky note.

In class, students create these pictorial representations for various examples to develop their understanding. This additional pictorial representation coupled with improvements based on comments on the original post and feedback from students, has resulted in a model that helps students develop a strong understanding of, what I believe is the most challenging concept in APCSA, references in Java. This year, I’ll demonstrate with the concrete representation and then have students create these pictorial representations.

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