Embodied approaches to learning programming

Almjally, Abrar (2022) Embodied approaches to learning programming. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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This thesis explores observable representations of embodied learning, such as physicality, gestures and the use of conceptual metaphors among students in primary computing education. To understand the influence of more physically interactive forms of interface, I compared the use of two user interfaces – a Tangible User Interface (TUI) and Graphical User Interface (GUI) – to foster programming skills in primary school students aged between six and seven. The first phase of this thesis, Studies 1 and 2, adopted a between-subjects design to examine the impact of interface type on several variables including enjoyment, attitudes, learning outcomes, and frequency of gestures, as well as the effect of gender on each variable. Both Study 1 and 2 examined the relationship between student gestures and learning outcomes. Study 1 examined the effect of physicality as an input by asking students to use a block-based programming environment to control a physical robot (PR) to solve six activities (two complex, four simple) where the students used either a TUI-PR or a GUI-PR. The use of a GUI-PR was associated with improved learning outcomes, but the TUI-PR led to a greater attitudinal improvement toward computing. No difference was identified in the number of gestures used by participants in the TUI-PR and GUI-PR groups, but a statistically significant difference was identified between the mean learning gains in programming of high-frequency gesturers and low-frequency gesturers, with the top quartile showing significantly greater learning gains.

Study 2 further examined the effect of physicality as both an input and an output by comparing two block-based programming environments: first, a TUI-PR consisting of physical, hand-manipulated blocks to control a physical robot; and second, a GUI-SR, which involve using touchscreen-operable programming blocks to control an on-screen robot (SR) to solve four simple activities. No difference was observed between the TUI-PR and GUI-PR in terms of learning outcomes, but the GUI-PR was associated with attitudinal improvement toward computing. Additionally, no difference was observed in the number of gestures used by participants in the TUI-PR and GUI-SR groups and no relationship was identified between the frequency of gestures and learning gains. In both studies, no difference was found in terms of the level of enjoyment or by gender across all the measures. The results also demonstrated that children used a range of gestures to represent the concept of iteration including pointing, literal representational gestures and metaphorical representational gestures.

In Study 3, we addressed a gap in the current theoretical understanding of computing education by drawing on embodied cognition theory. Using methodological tools from cognitive linguistics and gesture research, an analysis of how primary school students used spontaneous co-speech gestures when responding to interview questions and describing programming concepts was conducted. The findings show representational patterns in these gestures, thereby suggesting the potential of this methodological approach to provide a deeper understanding of the nature of learners’ cognition in the domain of computing education.

This work that contributes to two main areas: first, the field of interaction design, particularly relating to the importance of physicality in programming environments for children; and second, current understandings of the importance of gestures and conceptual metaphors in CS education in primary school.

This thesis presents an in-depth comparison of the use of a TUI and GUI to teach programming skills to primary school students. In particular, the findings indicate that a GUI-SR is suitable for children’s learning and is associated with greater attitudinal improvement than a TUI. This thesis also investigated the potential relationship between increased embodiment in the interface and output device (e.g., physicality) and increased use of embodied representations (e.g., gestures) that showed no relationship across Studies 1 and 2.

This research describes children’s use of spontaneous gestures when solving programming problems and explaining programming concepts. Additionally, regarding the use of spontaneous gestures, this research demonstrates how investigating children’s gestures may help to characterise children’s conceptions in primary computing, possibly allowing the identification of misconceptions and assisting the identification of productive educational strategies. This research has also provided evidence indicating that children use spontaneous hand gestures to demonstrate abstract computational concepts, even in the absence of relevant stimuli (i.e., written code); this reflects how gestures may indicate the embodiment of the children’s computing notions. Furthermore, this research presents tentative evidence of cultural influences on embodied conceptualisations. The findings suggest that the direction of a culture’s written language (i.e., right-to-left or left-to-right) influences the direction and use of conceptual metaphors in CS. Finally, this research identified a positive relationship between the mean learning gains of high-frequency gesturers and low-frequency gesturers on tasks with varying problem difficulties.

This work represents the first step toward understanding children’s embodied descriptions of programming and the potential role of gestures in supporting their learning. This was a worthwhile area of research because, although the analysis of children’s gestures has already proven valuable in illuminating knowledge acquisition and conceptual development in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields such as mathematics itself, the area of computing education is currently underexplored.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Engineering and Informatics > Informatics
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA0075 Electronic computers. Computer science > QA0076.6 Programming
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 08 Jun 2022 08:40
Last Modified: 08 Jun 2022 08:40
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/106314

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