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  5. Visualising the code: are students engaging with programming at level 1?

Visualising the code: are students engaging with programming at level 1?

Project leader(s): 
Elaine Thomas, Soraya Kouadri Mostéfaoui and Helen Jefferis

This project Visualising the code: are students engaging with programming at Level 1? investigated the impact of using a visual programming environment on student engagement with programming.

Programming is a subject that many students find difficult and it may be particularly challenging for distance learning students working largely on their own. Many ideas have been put forward in the literature to explain why students struggle with programming, including: the relative unfamiliarity of computer programming or ‘radical novelty’ (Dijkstra, 1989), cognitive load (Shaffer, 2004) and that the whole learning environment may be influential (Scott & Ghinea, 2013).

We used as our case-study TU100 My digital life which is a Level 1 undergraduate Computer Science module in the Open University. The rationale for this work stems from the need for an introductory undergraduate Computing and IT module that will engage students of widely differing levels of prior experience in terms of programming and of education generally. In TU100, the module team introduced a visual programming environment, based on Scratch (MIT, 2007), called ‘Sense’ which is used in conjunction with an electronic device, the SenseBoard.

In the first phase of the project we analysed the grades of 6,159 students in the final assessment across six presentations of the module to identify student performance in the programming task, in comparison with their overall performance on the module. The aim was to explore whether there was any difference between student engagement with the programming task in comparison with non-programming tasks. Our results suggest that there is no significant difference in levels of engagement between these tasks, and it appears that success, or otherwise, in one type of task is a good predictor of engagement with the other tasks.

In the second phase of the project we analysed the textual comments made by students in the Student Experience on a Module (SEaM) survey from two recent presentations of TU100, using key words relating to programming. Just under 30% of students who made textual comments gave feedback about Sense or the programming teaching. A total of 22.2% of the students made positive comments about the use of Sense or the programming teaching generally and 7.6% of students’ comments were negative. Of the students who made negative comments, a small number had struggled with the programming, while others thought that the teaching was pitched at too low a level. However, the majority of student comments in this area suggest that they had enjoyed the programming elements.

The visual programming language used at Level 1 has been successful in engaging students in the study of programming. This study will provide a firm basis for a similar analysis of student performance on the new Level 1 modules which use a visual programming language in the first module followed by Python in the second one, and how well students cope with Level 2 programming.

Related resources

Thomas, E., Kouadri Mostéfaoui, S. and Jefferis, H. (2019) Visualising the code: are students engaging with programming at Level 1? eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Thomas, E.; Kouadri Mostéfaoui, S. and Jefferis, H. (2018) Visualising the code: a study of student engagement with programming in a distance learning context. In: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Networked Learning 2018 (Bajić, M.; Dohn, D. N.; de Laat, M.; Jandrić, P. and Ryberg, T. eds.), Springer.

Thomas, E.; Kouadri Mostéfaoui, S. and Jefferis, H. (2018)  Visualising the Code: An investigation of student engagement with programming in TU100. 7th eSTEeM Annual Conference, The Open University, Milton Keynes. (PDF)

Thomas, E., Kouadri Mostéfaoui, S. and Jefferis, H. (2017) Investigation of student engagement with programming in TU100: The impact of using a graphical programming environment? 6th eSTEeM Annual Conference, The Open University, Milton Keynes, 25-26 April 2017. (PDF)