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Leveraging Historical Ties Between Cognitive Science and Computer Science to Guide Programming Education

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Best of Computers in Education Division

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

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Paper Authors


Darren K Maczka Virginia Tech Department of Engineering Education Orcid 16x16

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Darren Maczka is a Ph.D. student in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. His background is in control systems engineering and information systems design and he received his B.S. in Computer Systems Engineering from The University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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Jacob R Grohs Virginia Tech

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Jacob Grohs is an Assistant Professor in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech with Affiliate Faculty status in Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and the Learning Sciences and Technologies at Virginia Tech. He holds degrees in Engineering Mechanics (BS, MS) and in Educational Psychology (MAEd, PhD).

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Historically computer science and cognitive science have co-evolved: cognitive science has adopted information processing models of cognition, and computer science has adopted concepts and language design informed by what we know about thinking and learning. This literature review will re-examine these ties and analyze contemporary studies of programming education practice and evaluate how they align (or do not align) with contemporary understanding of how we think and learn.

For two processes as intimately intertwined as computing and human cognition, the use of computers in modern education is surprisingly limited. More often then not, computers in the classroom, when used for any educational purpose at all, are used as a reference medium to easily access encyclopedic knowledge, a robust typewriter for producing static written documents, or to project content onto a screen without the hassle of keeping track of transparencies. Certainly there are some innovative uses: the opportunity to receive instant feedback opens up previously unavailable avenues to use assessment to drive learning. Similarly, a degree of interactivity that was previously unattainable in large classes now can be achieved with real-time response systems. But even so, these examples are using computers merely as a means to an end (e.g. different kinds of assessment), the actual process of computation that takes place to make these uses possible is hidden from view and thus does not enter the discussion.

This literature review will first identify three specific modern competencies indicated by historic ties between computer science and cognitive science – namely how we think (metacognition), how we think with others (teamwork and collaborative problem solving), and how we share our thinking process (communication artifacts). The discussion of these three competencies will be organized around different computer programming education interventions that have been reported in recent literature. We will frame the interventions around our understanding of cognitive and learning science to better understand why the strategies that have worked have done so and to help identify how strategies less effective than anticipated might be improved. These results are especially relevant at a time when programming instruction is becoming standard practice across engineering disciplines, not only computer science. By grounding programming instruction in contemporary understanding of how we think and learn, instructors will be better able to realize gains in student understanding in engineering programming courses. Finally, while the focus of this literature survey will be on programming, the ties between computing and cognition do not depend on programming, thus much of the discussion and results will apply to computing education in general, providing a signpost to guide future innovative uses of computers in education.

Maczka, D. K., & Grohs, J. R. (2016, June), Leveraging Historical Ties Between Cognitive Science and Computer Science to Guide Programming Education Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25559

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