Using Visualization to Reduce the Cognitive Load of Threshold Concepts in Computer Programming

Victor Winter, Michelle Friend, Michael Matthews, Betty Love, Sanghamithra Vasireddy

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

1 Scopus citations


This Full Paper in the Research to Practice Category reports on an empirical empirical study in which novel educational tools and techniques were employed to teach fundamentals of problem decomposition - a cognitive task transcending disciplines. Within the discipline of computer science, problem decomposition is recognized as a foundational activity of software development. Factors that contribute to the complexity of this activity include: (1) recognizing patterns within an algorithm, (2) mapping the understanding of an algorithm to the syntax of a given programming language, and (3) complexity intrinsic to the problem domain itself.Cognitive load theory states that learning outcomes can be positively affected by reducing the extraneous cognitive load associated with learning objectives as well as by changing the nature of what is learned. In the study reported upon here, a novel instructional method was developed to decrease students' cognitive load. Novel instructional content supported by a custom visualization tool was used in a classroom setting in order to help novice programmers develop an understanding of function-based problem decomposition within the context of a visual domain. Performance on outcome measures (a quiz and assignment) were compared between the new method and the traditional teaching method demonstrated that students were significantly more successful at demonstrating mastery when using the new instructional method.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publication2019 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, FIE 2019
PublisherInstitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.
ISBN (Electronic)9781728117461
StatePublished - Oct 2019
Event49th IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, FIE 2019 - Covington, United States
Duration: Oct 16 2019Oct 19 2019

Publication series

NameProceedings - Frontiers in Education Conference, FIE
ISSN (Print)1539-4565


Conference49th IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, FIE 2019
Country/TerritoryUnited States


  • computational thinking
  • functional programming
  • mathematical thinking
  • spatial reasoning
  • visual thinking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Education
  • Computer Science Applications


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