Starting with Robots: Linking Spatial Ability and Learning to Program

July 25, 2013 at 1:12 am 6 comments

Stuart Wray has a remarkable blog that I recommend to CS teachers.  He shares his innovations in teaching, and grounds them in his exploration of the literature into the psychology of programming.  The quote and link below is an excellent example, where his explanation led to me a paper I’m eager to dive into.  Stuart has built an interesting warm-up activity for his class that involves robots.  What I’m most intrigued by is his explanation for why it works as it does.  The paper that he cites by Jones and Burnett is not one that I’d seen before, but it explores an idea that I’ve been interested in for awhile, ever since I discovered the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center:  Is spatial ability a pre-requisite for learning in computer science?  And if so, can we teach it explicitly to improve CS learning?

The game is quite fun and doesn’t take very long to play — usually around a quarter of an hour or less. It’s almost always quite close at the end, because of course it’s a race between the last robot in each team. There’s plenty of opportunity for delaying tactics and clever blocking moves near the exit by the team which is behind, provided they don’t just individually run for the exit as fast as possible.

But turning back to the idea from James Randi, how does this game work? It seems from my experience to be doing something useful, but how does it really work as an opening routine for a programming class? Perhaps first of all, I think it lets me give the impression to the students that the rest of the class might be fun. Lots of students don’t seem to like the idea of programming, so perhaps playing a team game like this at the start of the class surprises them into giving it a second chance.

I think also that there is an element of “sizing the audience up” — it’s a way to see how the students interact with one another, to see who is retiring and who is bold, who is methodical and who is careless. The people who like clever tricks in the game seem often to be the people who like clever tricks in programming. There is also some evidence that facility with mental rotation is correlated with programming ability. (See Spatial ability and learning to program by Sue Jones and Gary Burnett in Human Technology, vol.4(1), May 2008, pp.47-61.) To the extent that this is true, I might be getting a hint about who will have trouble with programming from seeing who has trouble making their robot turn the correct direction.

via On Food and Coding: The Robots Game.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Raymond Lister  |  July 26, 2013 at 1:14 am

    Spatial Ability and Learning to Program may correlate because both are related to general intelligence. In fact, when doing experiments, some psychologists use a spatial reasoning test as a proxy for general intelligence. Another proxy is reaction time. A consistent problem with the literature relating programming to other abilities is that general intelligence is not first factored out.

    • 2. chaikens  |  September 12, 2013 at 9:37 am

      I don’t think its that simple. We know plenty of very intelligent, productive, and creative verbal people who can’t program, do math or solve spatial problems worth beans.

      My University has above average admissions standards (1200 or so old SAT), but we like most others see the enormous range of speeds and effectivenesses in our students’ learning of programming.

      I’m on my way to try the robot game in our CS1 labs!

      • 3. Raymond Lister  |  September 12, 2013 at 9:49 am

        “I don’t think its that simple”. We are all free to think what we like, but a real discourse in CSEd requires a discussion based in some sort of evidence. Spatial ability and IQ are related. That’s well established empirically. By all means feel free to argue “I don’t think its that simple”, but either cite experimental work or do an experiment of your own. We can both exchange personal anecdotes, but neither of us will change our opinion based upon ther other’s anecdote.

  • 4. chaikens  |  September 12, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Can you help us by citing scientific models or experiments that try to account for many 1200+ SAT college kids struggling much more with programming than they do with English, or else evidence that this popular impression (like the world being flat, which it is, to an approximation good at small scales) is actually a chemera?

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  September 12, 2013 at 2:46 pm

      I think Raymond is making a statement about research methods, not strictly about intelligence itself. Absolutely, intelligent people may not have strong spatial skills. However, in general, spatial skills and general intelligence correlate. Thus, if you want to make a statement about spatial ability and its relation to any activity X, you have to control for general intelligence which could also have an influence on activity X. It’s a fair criticism, and the paper I cited did not do that. Further, the paper I cited above only considered one kind of spatial ability (mental rotation), and there are other forms that might be more significantly correlated with programming ability. My point is that there may still be something interesting going on here (wrt spatial ability and programming). The cited paper is not convincing, but is intriguing. Raymond’s point is fair that there are some methodological issues to address in putting together a convincing case.

      • 6. chaikens  |  September 13, 2013 at 6:05 am

        Thanks for clearing that up, Mark.


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