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Work in Progress: Parsons Problems as a Tool in the First-Year Engineering Classroom

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Cornucopia #2

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Brooke C. Morin Ohio State University

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Brooke Morin is a Lecturer in the College of Engineering at the Ohio State University, teaching First-Year Engineering for Honors classes in the Department of Engineering Education. Brooke earned her bachelor's degree and master's degree in Mechanical Engineering at Ohio State.

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Krista M. Kecskemety Ohio State University

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Krista Kecskemety is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University. Krista received her B.S. in Aerospace Engineering at The Ohio State University in 2006 and received her M.S. from Ohio State in 2007. In 2012, Krista completed her Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering at Ohio State. Her engineering education research interests include investigating first-year engineering student experiences, faculty experiences, and the connection between the two.

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Kathleen A. Harper Ohio State University

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Kathleen A. Harper is a senior lecturer in the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University. She received her M. S. in physics and B. S. in electrical engineering and applied physics from Case Western Reserve University, and her Ph. D. in physics from The Ohio State University. She has been on the staff of Ohio State’s University Center for the Advancement of Teaching, in addition to teaching in both the physics and engineering education departments. She is currently a member of the ASEE Board of Directors' Advisory Committee on P-12 Engineering Education.

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Paul Alan Clingan Ohio State University

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Senior Lecturer
Department of Engineering Education

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Parsons Problems as a Tool in the First-Year Engineering Classroom

This Complete Evidence-based Practice Paper will describe the use of Parsons problems in a first-year engineering classroom. Parsons problems have recently grown in popularity as a tool for coding instruction. These problems provide students with mixed-up segments of a program or a portion of a program. These segments are often accompanied by distractors, which are incorrect or unnecessary code segments. Placing these segments in the correct order and eliminating distractors allows students to focus on the logic of the code without having to generate proper syntax, thereby reducing the students’ cognitive load. Despite the frequent findings that these exercises produce learning gains similar to or better than producing or editing code, few authors have discussed the utility of Parsons problems in a first-year engineering setting. Further, few authors have explored the use of these problems as group exercises, as most implementations found in the literature have been computer-based and individual. This paper presents the method by which one first-year engineering program implemented group-solved Parsons problems and investigated the students’ reactions, engagement, and problem-solving processes.

The honors component of the first-year engineering program at a large Midwestern university provides instruction in MATLAB and C/C++. Some students bring previous programming experience, while many have little formal programming instruction. While logic and structured approaches to problem solving are taught prior to the beginning of code creation, students continue to develop their understanding of programming logic while also learning the appropriate syntax.

The first-year engineering faculty implemented Parsons problems to provide weekly opportunities for synthesis and to improve programming logic and syntax while reducing the cognitive load required. Each problem set consisted of strips of paper placed in an envelope with written instructions. Each strip contained one or more lines of code that, when put together, created a program to implement the provided scenario. Students were encouraged to work in groups, with each group having between two and four members, depending on the difficulty and scale of the program. The use of a paper-based format facilitated group interaction, allowing students to pass code segments back and forth and discuss their placement in the overall code structure.

As the semester progressed, the difficulty of the problems increased. Initial problems were simple programs with minimal repetition or selection. Later problems were more complex and often contained distractors, aimed at correcting either common logical errors or common syntax errors. Some weeks contained only one main function, while others had multiple color-coded components such as user-written functions.

The authors are currently in the process of teaching this course. Initial student feedback is positive and includes discussion of the enjoyability of the exercise, the utility of discussing the problem with other group members, and gains in understanding of logic and syntax. Further and more detailed student and instructor feedback will be available as the course is completed and will be analyzed for the draft paper. We expect to discuss the content of that feedback, as well as observations of student engagement, approaches to problem solving, and group dynamics.

Parsons problems have the potential to provide first-year engineering students with an engaging group learning experience to improve their programming skills with respect to both logic and syntax. The use of physical media facilitates student interactions. By sharing the method by which these problems were implemented and evaluating student and faculty feedback, the authors hope to provide a resource for other programs looking to improve student experiences in first-year engineering coding instruction.

Morin, B. C., & Kecskemety, K. M., & Harper, K. A., & Clingan, P. A. (2020, June), Work in Progress: Parsons Problems as a Tool in the First-Year Engineering Classroom Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35675

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