Computer Laboratory

Technical reports

Using multiple representations to develop notational expertise in programming

Alistair G. Stead

June 2016, 301 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted May 2015 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Girton College.


The development of expertise with notations is an important skill for both creators and users of new technology in the future. In particular, the development of Notational Expertise (NE) is becoming valued in schools, where changes in curricula recommend that students of all ages use a range of programming representations to develop competency that can be used to ultimately create and manipulate abstract text notation. Educational programming environments making use of multiple external representations (MERs) that replicate the transitions occurring in schools within a single system present a promising area of research. They can provide support for scaffolding knowledge using low-abstraction representations, knowledge transfer, and addressing barriers faced during representation transition.

This thesis identifies analogies between the use of notation in mathematics education and programming to construct the Modes of Representational Abstraction (MoRA) framework, which supports the identification of representation transition strategies. These strategies were used to develop an educational programming environment, DrawBridge. Studies of the usage of DrawBridge highlighted the need for assessment mechanisms to measure NE. Empirical evaluation in a range of classrooms found that the MoRA framework provided useful insights and that low-abstraction representations provided a great source of motivation. Comparisons of assessments found that a novel assessment type, Adapted Parsons Problems, produced high student participation while still correlating with code-writing scores. Results strongly suggest that game-like features can encourage the use of abstract notation and increase students’ acquisition of NE. Finally, findings show that students in higher year groups benefitted more from using DrawBridge than students in lower year groups.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Stead, Alistair G.},
  title = 	 {{Using multiple representations to develop notational
         	   expertise in programming}},
  year = 	 2016,
  month = 	 jun,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-890}