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Phenomenography as a Tool for Investigating Understanding of Computing Concepts

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Assessing Student Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1157.1 - 22.1157.22



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Paper Authors


Gregory Bucks Ohio Northern University

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Gregory Bucks recently graduated with his Ph.D. from the school of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He received his BSEE from the Pennsylvania State University and his MSECE from Purdue University. While at Purdue, he has been heavily involved with the EPICS program as well as working with the First-Year Engineering program. He is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science department at Ohio Northern University, where he is teaching introductory circuits and a variety of introductory programming courses.

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William C. Oakes Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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William Oakes is the Director of the EPICS Program at Purdue University, one of the founding faculty members of the School of Engineering Education and a courtesy faculty member in Mechanical Engineering and Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education. He is an fellow of the ASEE and NSPE. .He was the first engineer to win the Campus Compact Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service-Learning. He was a co-recipient of the 2005 National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education for his work in EPICS.

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Phenomenography as a Tool for Investigating Understanding of Computing ConceptsComputing has become a foundational subject across the engineering disciplines andoffers significant opportunities both in practice and in education. Maximizing thispotential requires deep understanding of how students learn and apply computingconcepts. There has been a great deal of work exploring understanding in computingeducation, much of which has focused on what constitutes knowledge in computing andthe processes engaged to store and utilize this knowledge in solving computing problems.There is also a sizable body of work exploring the misconceptions held by novices incomputing education. However, little work has been done exploring the types ofconceptions that computing students hold for the fundamental computing concepts apartfrom defining them as misconceptions. Furthermore, most of the work has been attachedto understanding within specific programming languages. Uncovering the different typesof conceptions held by students independent of specific computing languages orenvironments is essential to understanding how students learn computing concepts andultimately to develop better pedagogical and assessment techniques.Phenomenography is a research methodology uniquely designed to uncover the differentconceptions held by individuals about a given concept, but has rarely been applied to thearea of computing. Phenomenography originated out of educational psychology workexploring the ways that students experienced learning, approached their studies, and thelevels of understanding achieved. It has been widely adopted in Europe and Australia,but has only recently begun to be used in the United States. The reasonphenomenography is well-suited to exploring the different types of understanding held byan individual is that the main tenet of phenomenography is that any phenomenon can beunderstood in a limited number of qualitatively different ways. Thus, the goal ofphenomenography is to uncover those different ways of understanding.In recent years, phenomenography has begun to be used to explore the way that studentsexperience the act of learning to program, both from a procedural and object-orientedperspective. However, it has not been used to explore the understanding held byindividuals of specific concepts in computing. This paper describes howphenomenography was employed to explore the fundamental computing concepts ofconditional and repetition structures. In addition, a discussion will be presented on howthe results of this study, along with follow-on studies employing this methodologyexploring additional fundamental programming concepts, can lay the groundwork for thedevelopment of language and computing environment independent assessmentinstruments. These instruments are needed for valid assessment and comparison of thepedagogical variations inherent in using the variety of programming languages,environments, and paradigms available today.

Bucks, G., & Oakes, W. C. (2011, June), Phenomenography as a Tool for Investigating Understanding of Computing Concepts Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18485

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