My new programming languages course

tl;dr: my new PL course is now finished, and all the course materials are freely available. Working through all the exercises should be a great option for anyone wishing to learn some basics of programming language design and implementation.

Last May, I wrote about my ideas for designing a new PL course, and got a lot of great comments and feedback. Well, somehow I survived the semester, and the course is now over. In the end I’m pretty happy with how it went (though of course there are always things that can be improved next time).

I decided to use class time in an unconventional way: for each class meeting I created a “module”, consisting of a literate Haskell file with some example code, explanatory text, and lots of holes where students needed to write answers to exercises or fill in code. I split the students into groups, and they spent class time just working through the module. Instead of standing at the front lecturing, I just wandered around watching them work and answering questions. It took a bit of getting used to—for the first few classes I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really doing my job—but it quickly became clear that the students were really learning and engaging with the material in a way that they would not have been able to if I had just lectured.

A happy byproduct of this approach is that the modules are fairly self-contained and can now be used by anyone to learn the material. Reading through all the modules and working through the exercises should be a great option for anyone wishing to learn some basics of programming language design and implementation. For example, I know I will probably reuse it to get summer research students up to speed. Note that the course assumes no knowledge of Haskell (so those familiar with Haskell can safely skip the first few modules), but introduces just enough to get where I want to go.

I don’t plan to release any solutions, so don’t ask. But other than that, questions, comments, bug reports, etc. are welcome!

About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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2 Responses to My new programming languages course

  1. Max says:

    “Find the ghci command to reload the current module. Uncomment the line i = 12 above, save this file, and reload. What happens? Does it change your answer to the previous question at all?”

    The previous question is about ->; this seems like it should refer to the question before that, about =.

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