Computer Science and Engineering, Department of


First Advisor

Bonita Sharif

Date of this Version

Spring 5-4-2020


Saddler, J. A. "Understanding Eye Gaze Patterns in Code Comprehension: A Dissertation." PhD dissertation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2020.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Computer Science Under the Supervision of Bonita Sharif. Lincoln, Nebraska: May 2020

Copyright (c) 2020 Jonathan A. Saddler


Program comprehension is a sub-field of software engineering that seeks to understand how developers understand programs. Comprehension acts as a starting point for many software engineering tasks such as bug fixing, refactoring, and feature creation. The dissertation presents a series of empirical studies to understand how developers comprehend software in realistic settings. The unique aspect of this work is the use of eye tracking equipment to gather fine-grained detailed information of what developers look at in software artifacts while they perform realistic tasks in an environment familiar to them, namely a context including both the Integrated Development Environment (Eclipse or Visual Studio) and a web browser (Google Chrome). The iTrace eye tracking infrastructure is used for certain eye tracking studies on large code files as it is able to handle page scrolling and context switching.

The first study is a classroom-based study on how students actively trained in the classroom understand grouped units of C++ code. Results indicate students made many transitions between lines that were closer together, and were attracted the most to if statements and to a lesser extent assignment code. The second study seeks to understand how developers use Stack Overflow page elements to build summaries of open source project code. Results indicate participants focused more heavily on question and answer text, and the embedded code, more than they did the title, question tags, or votes. The third study presents a larger code summarization study using different information contexts: Stack Overflow, bug repositories and source code. Results show participants tended to visit up to two codebase files in either the combined or isolated codebase session, but visit more bug report pages, and spend longer time on new Stack Overflow pages they visited, when given either these two treatments in isolation. In the combined session, time spent on the one or two codebase files they viewed dominated the session time. Information learned from tracking developers' gaze in these studies can form foundations for developer behavior models, which we hope can later inform recommendations for actions one might take to achieve workflow goals in these settings.

Advisor: Bonita Sharif