Evaluation and proposed enhancements in learning undergraduate computer programming using visual Problem Based Learning (PbBL) visual Project Based Learning (PjBL) and visual computer programming

  • Gary Hill

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This research, as published in the papers being critically appraised here, evaluated existing teaching strategies adopted on computing degree programmes and proposed pedagogical innovation that impacts and improves first year undergraduate computer programming and, enhances student learning. This necessitated a departure from the didactic teaching strategy often adopted (of teaching code via isolated concepts and working through a few exercises) by introducing an improved and enhanced pedagogical approach.

The focus of the published work was the teaching of computer programming and problem solving to undergraduate first year computing students, using visual computer programming, together with robot’s/robot simulators. The author is responsible for the original idea, design, development and introduction of a new first year undergraduate module at the University of Northampton in 2004. The new first year module called “CSY1020 Problem Solving and Programming" enabled proposed pedagogical approaches to be implemented and evaluated. The overarching new and innovative pedagogical approach introduced and implemented by the author, that improved and enhanced student learning was called ‘Problems-first’ and ‘Graphics-first’. The author has used the term ‘Graphics-first’ to define the approach, whereby visual computer programming and graphical user interfaces (GUI) are developed from the outset and throughout the module.

The critical appraisal details the extent to which the author’s published works provide a coherent demonstration of the new pedagogical innovation which focused on and emphasised the importance of the ‘Problems-first’ and ‘Graphics-first’ learning and teaching strategies, that were subdivided into four core pedagogical approaches:

•Problem Solving (PS).
•Problem-Solving-First (PSF) /Problems-First (PF).
•Problem Based Learning (PbBL)/Project Based Learning (PjBL).
•Physical to Visual/Visual Programming.

These four core pedagogical approaches have been applied by the author to the teaching of computer programming and problem solving to undergraduate first year computing students, using robots/robot simulators and visual programming to emulate the robot tasks. Students were taught how to solve problems as part of a project/assignment that is related to a pseudo real-world problem which ultimately stimulates deeper learning and its transferability.

The author has been the first to define and differentiate between Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning by using the abbreviations PbBL and PjBL and defining PjBL as where a project/challenge is set from the outset, such that one PbBL activity leads to another and the series of linked problems form the greater challenge or project. The author’s innovative approach can be seen through adhering strictly to the above definition, throughout the delivery of the Programming module, which combined visual PbBL and visual PjBL.

The need to focus initial computer programming education on problem solving, prior to the teaching of computer programming syntax and software design methodology, is proposed by the author. The main vehicle for this approach is a robot/robot simulation programmed in the Java programming language, followed by the visual computer programming of a graphical representation/simulation to develop computer programming skills all delivered by the four pedagogical approaches.

The methodology used was action/practitioner research, where the proposed learning and teaching strategies were designed, developed, implemented, evaluated and reflected upon by the author to enable refined approaches to be further re-implemented. The findings and recommendations of this research are that the author’s contribution and impact evidences to include the following learning and teaching strategies:

•Problem Solving (PS) throughout the teaching of computer programming (and allied subjects);
•Visual Problem Based Learning (PbBL) visual Project Based Learning (PjBL) and;
•Physical to visual/visual programming (VP).

The academic impact of the author’s research shows that interest has been generated through its dissemination, resulting in citations and requests for papers, together with the impact of the citations, within the context of the pedagogical approaches discussed. This research led to impact and influence on many stakeholders whether: students (at all academic levels); lecturers within or outside the discipline; other Universities throughout the UK, EU and internationally; UK school education (primary and secondary) and even a commercial robot manufacturer.

The author’s research is also shown to be timely, relevant and impactful following the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2016, due to its proposed pedagogical innovation. Also, with the introduction of the new Computing National Curriculum in September 2013, not only has computer programming become prominent within the School’s curriculum, but both the introduction of computational thinking and the use of visual programming languages are directly relevant to the pedagogical approaches advocated by the author i.e. Problem Solving (PS) visual Problem Based Learning (PbBL) visual Project Based Learning (PjBL) and physical to visual/visual programming (VP).
Date of AwardJul 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorCristina Devecchi (Supervisor) & Scott Turner (Supervisor)


  • Active blended learning
  • Active learning
  • Computational thinking
  • Computer programming
  • Experimental learning
  • Graphical
  • Graphical programming
  • Graphical user interface
  • Graphics-first
  • Problem Based Learning
  • Project Based Learning
  • Problems-first
  • Problem solving
  • Robots
  • Simulation
  • Visual
  • Visual programming
  • Visual programming language

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