Skip to main content

Review of a problems-first approach to first year undergraduate programming

A paper was recently presented at the 11th China-Europe International Symposium of Software Engineering Education, 29-30 April 2015, Zwickau, Germany

Review of a problems-first approach to first year undergraduate programming

Gary J. Hill
(Head of Department, Computing & Immersive Technologies, University of Northampton, Northampton, NN2 6JB, UK)



This paper, predominantly discusses the teaching of programming and problem solving to undergraduate first year computing students, using robots/robot simulators and visual programming to emulate the robot tasks. The needs to focus initial programming education on problem solving, prior to the teaching of programming syntax and software design methodology is also considered. The main vehicle for this approach is a robot/robot simulation programmed in Java, followed by the programming of a visual representation/simulation to develop programming skills. Problem solving is not trivial (Beaumont & Fox, 2003) and is an important skill, central to computing and engineering. The paper aims to summarise the authors earlier research on a problems-first approach to programming (Hill & Turner, 2011, 2014  to further emphasise the importance of problem solving, problem-based learning/project-based learning and the benefits of both physical and visual solutions.

The importance of linking the problem-solving robot activity and the programming assignment, whilst maintaining the visual nature of the problem, will be discussed, together with the comparison of this work with similar work reported by other authors relating to teaching programming using robots (Williams, 2003, Burbaitė et al., 2013).

The approaches discussed have been disseminated to colleagues, not only within the author’s University, but also in Europe and internationally (Kariyawasam, Turner & Hill, 2012, Hill & Turner, 2011, 2014) . Development funding support has also been received from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) – Information & Computer Sciences (ICS) Development Fund (2015a) and the HEA-ICS/Microsoft Innovative Teaching Fund (2015b).

Adams, J., Turner, S., Kaczmarczyk, S., Picton, P., & Demian, P. (2008). Problem solving and creativity for undergraduate engineers: Findings of an action research project involving robots. Paper presented at the International Conference on Engineering Education (ICEE 2008), Budapest, Hungary.
Adams J. P., & Turner, S. J., (2008) Problem Solving and Creativity for Undergraduate Engineers: process or product? International Conference on Innovation, Good Practice and Research in Engineering Education July 14-16, 2008, Loughborough, England, Higher Education Academy. 9781904804659.
Burbaitė, R., Damaševičius, R., Štuikys, V., (2013) Teaching of Computer Science Topics Using Meta-Programming-Based GLOs and LEGO Robots, Informatics in Education - An International Journal (Vol12_1), pp125-142.
Beaumont, C., & Fox, C. (2003). Learning programming: Enhancing quality through problem-based learning. In proceeding of 4th Annual Conference of the subject centre for Information and Computer Sciences of the Higher Education Academy (pp. 90-95). Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland: Higher Education Academy.
Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook I: Cognitive domain. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Chickering, A. W., Gamson. Z., F. (1987) "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." AAHE Bulletin 39:3-7. ED 282 491.6 pp. MF-01; PC-01.
Computing Curricula. (2001) IEEE CS, ACM Joint Task Force on Computing Curricula, IEEE Computer Society Press and ACM Press. Retrieved January 22, 2015 from
Gallopoulos E, Houstis E, Rice JR (1994) Computer as Thinker/Doer: Problem-Solving Environments for Computational Science IEEE Computational Science and Engineering pp 11-23
Gold. N., (2010) Motivating Students in Software Engineering Group Projects: An Experience Report. Innovation in Teaching and Learning in Information and Computer Sciences 9(1), 10-19. DOI: 10.11120/ital.2010.09010010
Greenfoot (2013) Teach and Learn Java Programming. Retrieved August 1, 2013, from
HEA-ICS Development Fund (2015a) HEA-ICS Development Fund [online] Available from: [Accessed February 2015].
HEA-ICS/Microsoft Innovative Teaching Fund (2015b) "Developing problem-solving teaching materials based upon Microsoft Robotics Studio" [online] Available from: [Accessed February 2015].
Hill, G. and Turner, S. J. (2014) Problems first, second and third. International Journal of Quality Assurance in Engineering and Technology Education (IJQAETE). 3(3), pp. 88-109. 2155-496X.
Hill G. J., Turner S. (2011) "Chapter 7: Problems First", Software Industry-Oriented Education Practices and Curriculum Development: Experiences and Lessons, M Hussey, X Xu & B Wu (Eds.), IGI Global, USA, pp 110-126, ISBN: 978-1-60960-797-5.
Houghton, W., (2004) How can Learning and Teaching Theory assist Engineering Academics? [online]. School of Engineering - University of Exeter. Available from: [Accessed November 2007].
JICC5 (2001) Java & the Internet in the Computing Curriculum, Higher Education Academy (HEA) – Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) Conference, South Bank University, London, 22nd Jan, (
Kariyawasam K., A., Turner S., Hill G. (2012) "Is it Visual? The importance of a Problem Solving Module within a Computing course", Computer Education, Volume 10, Issue 166, May 2012, pp. 5-7, ISSN: 1672-5913.
Microsoft. (2006). Microsoft robotics studio. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from
Savin-Baden, M. & Wilkie, K. (2004) (eds) Challenging Research in Problem-based Learning. Maidenhead: Open University Press/SRHE.
Turner S., Hill G. J., (2010) Innovative Use of Robots and Graphical Programming in Software Education, Computer Education, Volume 9, May 2010, pp. 54-6, ISSN: 1672-5913.
Turner S., Hill G. J., (2008) Robots within the teaching of Problem-Solving, ITALICS, HEA-ICS, Volume 7 Issue 1, June 2008, pp. 108-119, ISSN: 1473-7507.
Turner S., Hill G. J., (2007) Robots in Problem-Solving and Programming 8th Annual Conference of the Subject Centre for Information and Computer Sciences, University of Southampton, 28th - 30th August 2007, pp 82-85 ISBN 0-978-0-9552005-7-1
Turner S., Hill G. J., (2006) The Inclusion of Robots Within The Teaching OF Problem Solving: Preliminary Results, 7th Annual Conference of the ICS HE Academy, Trinity College, Dublin, 29th - 31st August 2006, Proceedings pg 241-242 ISBN 0-9552005-3-9
Wing, J. (2006). Computational thinking. Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, 49(3), 33.

Gary is also on the International Programme committee (  and was a panel member of the discussion of Software Engineering Education and Industry

If you'd like to find out more about Computing at the University of Northampton go to: All views and opinions are the author's and do not necessarily reflected those of any organisation they are associated with

Popular posts from this blog

Experiments in teaching Neural Networks

Excel Based

More details available at including links to the code.

All views and opinions are the author's and do not necessarily reflected those of any organisation they are associated with. Twitter: @scottturneruon

Social Analysis of Publications

The Computing staff's network of co-authors, at the University of Northampton, based on the University's  research repository NECTAR - on 12th November 2016. The data goes back to 2010.

The data was analysed using the software VOSviewer - free software for visualising networks. Differences in colours represents, the clusters of publications with those authors picked out by the software. The relative size of the circles is the relative number of publications listed; so for the two biggest circles/hubs it relates to 55 and 34 publications in this time period. Some relatively new authors, to the University but not to research, explains some of the 'islands' and the number of publications within it - it only reflects publications whilst at the University of Northampton.

To dig a little deeper, going to  look at the two biggest 'hubs' through their NECTAR records, so potentially going …

Computer lecturer’s research helps improve the next generation of technology

Taken from: A computing lecturer at the University of Northampton, who is researching into how the efficiency of our everyday devices, such as mobile phones, can be improved, has been awarded the best paper at two recent conferences. Dr Michael Opoku Agyeman has written several journal papers focusing on how the next generation of technology can meet the ever increasing demands from consumers. He was invited to present his work at the 19th Euromicro Conference on Digital System Design in Cyprus and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 14th International Conference in Paris. Part of his research concentrates on whether several processing elements can be incorporated on a single chip, known as System-On-Chip, to improve the efficiency and speed of the computing systems that we use every day, from mobile phones to video-game consoles and even medical equipment…