How to Learn Computer Programming Efficiently through Computer Games: Michael Lee and Gidget
I was honored to serve on Michael Lee’s dissertation committee. Mike’s basic thesis is available at this link, or you can get the jumbo-expanded edition with an enormous appendix describing everything in his software plus his learning evaluation (described below) at this link. His thesis brings together several studies he’s done on Gidget, his game in which he teaches programming. I’ve written about his work before, like his terrific finding that including assessments improves engagement in his game (see blog post here) and about how Gidget offers us a new way to think about assessing learning (see blog post here).
Michael had several fascinating results with Gidget. One of my favorites that I have not blogged on yet was that personifying the programming tool improves retention (see his ICER 2011 paper here). When Gidget sees a syntax error, she (I’m assigning gender here) doesn’t say, “Missing semicolon” or “Malformed expression.” Instead, she says “I don’t what this is, so I’ll just go on to the next step” and looks sad that she was unable to do what the programmer asked her to do. The personification of the programming tool dramatically improved the number of game levels completed. They kept going. In course terms, they were retained.
The dissertation has yet another Big Wow result. Mike developed an assessment of computing knowledge based on Allison Elliott Tew’s work on FCS1 (see here). He did a nice job validating it using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
He then compares three different conditions for learning differences:
- Gidget, as a game for learning.
- CodeAcademy, as a tutorial for learning.
- The Gidget game level designer. The idea was to provide a constructionist learning environment without a curriculum. Mike wanted it be like using Scratch or Alice or any other open-ended creative programming environment. What would the students learn without guidance in Gidget?
Gidget and CodeAcademy are statistically equivalent for learning, and both blow away the constructionist option. A designed curriculum beats a discovery-based learning opportunity. That’s interesting but not too surprising. Here’s the wild part: The Gidget users spend 1/2 as much time. Same learning, half as much time. I would not have predicted this, that Mike’s game is actually more efficient for learning about CS than is a tutorial. I’ve argued that learning efficiency is super important especially for high school teachers (see post here).
Mike is now an assistant professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (see his web page here). I wish him luck and look forward to what he does next!