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Distance Learning And Cognitive Load Theory To Improve Traditional And Non Traditional Student Learning Of Computer Programming For Mechanical Engineers: Quantitative Assessment

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Trends in Mechanical Engineering I

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.495.1 - 14.495.11



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Paper Authors

author page

Thomas Impelluso San Diego State University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Distance Learning and Cognitive Load Theory to Improve Traditional and Non-Traditional Student Learning of Computer Programming for Mechanical Engineers: Quantitative Assessment


This paper reports on the re-design of a computer programming class for students of mechanical engineering. The content was re-designed using Cognitive Load Theory; the delivery was re- designed using on-line technologies. Student learning was objectively assessed; it improved and the drop-out rate reduced. A previous paper reported on greatly improved student attitudes and instructor reviews. This paper reports on objective data: comparing student performance on identical final exams. Note is made of improved learning by non-traditional engineering students. This paper also reports on two additional teaching strategies that were deployed to improve learning. Finally, this work points to the next step in this evolving redesign.


Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) provides guidelines to present information in a manner that encourages learning and optimizes intellectual performance [1]. As an example, consider the obstacles in learning new material in a non-native language. Clearly, there is an overload: learners must master both the new material and the language itself. Interestingly, this is resonant with the challenge of learning to program a computer which faces those students not in the computer science major. Such learners must master both extraneous issues such as the operating system and the compiler and then the intrinsic issues such as the syntax of the language and application areas. CLT can mitigate challenges in such cases when learning loads are diverse and high.

According to CLT, information can be stored in long term memory after first being properly integrated, by working memory, into a mental structure that represents the schema of the material. However, the faculty of working memory has limits and this, unfortunately, can hinder learning, especially when many extraneous and ancillary facts compete to challenge the cognitive learning loads (which, in the case of programming, encompasses text editing, operating systems and compilers). CLT posits that there are three basic types of cognitive loads placed on a learner:

≠ “Intrinsic cognitive load” was first described in 1991 [2] as the essential material to be learned. Accordingly, all instruction has an inherent difficulty associated with it and this intrinsic material may not be altered by an instructor. In learning a foreign language, this includes the vocabulary and syntax.

Impelluso, T. (2009, June), Distance Learning And Cognitive Load Theory To Improve Traditional And Non Traditional Student Learning Of Computer Programming For Mechanical Engineers: Quantitative Assessment Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--4502

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