Subgoals, Problem Solving Phases, and Sources of Knowledge

A complex mangle.

Kevin Lin, David DeLiema.

Educational researchers have increasingly drawn attention to how students develop computational thinking (CT) skills, including in science, math, and literacy contexts. A key component of CT is the process of abstraction, a particularly challenging concept for novice programmers, but one vital to problem solving. We propose a framework based on situated cognition that can be used to document how instructors and students communicate about abstractions during the problem solving process. We develop this framework in a multimodal interaction analysis of a 32-minute long excerpt of a middle school student working in the PixelBots JavaScript programming environment at a two-week summer programming workshop taught by undergraduate CS majors. Through a microgenetic analysis of the process of teaching and learning about abstraction in this excerpt, we document the extemporaneous prioritization of subgoals and the back-and-forth coordination of problem solving phases. In our case study, we identify that (a) problem solving phases are nested with several instances of context-switching within a single phase; (b) the introduction of new ideas and information create bridges or opportunities to move between different problem solving phases; (c) planning to solve a problem is a non-linear process; and (d) pedagogical moves such as modeling and prompting highlight situated resources and advance problem solving. Future research should address how to help students structure subgoals and reflect on connections between problem solving phases, and how to help instructors reflect on their routes to supporting students in the problem solving process.