Using Robotics to Improve Retention and Increase Engagement in an Undergraduate Freshman Programming Logic and Design Course

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A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico


Education has changed as a result of technological advances. Millennials, a new generation of students who have grown up with the Internet, are college age. They use the Internet to manage their daily lives and consider themselves technologically savvy. However, as they enter college and enroll in computer programming and technology-based courses, many struggle with course material and eventually lose interest in the course content. Enrollment in undergraduate computer-science programs has dipped all over the country and while observers cite different reasons for the drop, however, a consensus seems to be emerging—computer science courses are boring (Fischman, 2007). Students seem to lose interest because learning a programming language is tedious, and students quickly realize that a tremendous amount of material must be mastered to produce a small amount of text output.

Computer programming and the development of logic skills is an intellectually demanding discipline usually taught using a combination of classroom lectures and laboratory work. A large amount of material must be taught in a relatively short amount of time. Knowledge is foundational; new concepts require mastery of those taught before. Accordingly, introductory computer programming courses are often frustrating to both students and faculty. Students are daunted by the amount of work and knowledge needed to complete simple programming tasks that seem to accomplish little. Faculty members are challenged by the different learning styles of their students. Additionally frustrating to faculty is a seemingly constant change of course material (programming languages and methodologies) fueled by the rapid pace of technical advances in both hardware and software, and innovations in the field. The aim is to improve student comprehension of course content by providing students with a hands-on activity designed to improve student satisfaction and engagement.

Enter the Robots

The goal was to use active learning to engage students through building and programming Lego® MINDSTORMS NXT robots. Students received robotic kits at the beginning of the semester and within two weeks their robotic creations were assembled and moving. The idea was to convey the key concepts of computing and programming in a creative and engaging way. Building and programming robots can provide students with project that will be embraced as both relevant and interesting. Additionally, faculty will be able to present the same concepts more effectively, ultimately teaching essential material in a manner that students will enjoy and benefit from.

Active Learning

A 1998 report by Coopers and Lybrand suggested that advances in technology which transformed distance education from correspondence courses to interactive, media- rich learning environments may also be the catalyst for the transformation of education itself. In spite of these predictions, education has remained largely unchanged. Instructors lead discussions or lectures and students complete readings and assignments. While most college classrooms have projectors that can be attached to a computer, these are controlled by the instructor and are primarily used to outline lectures or illustrate concepts (Schrand, 2008).

Educators are becoming increasingly aware that there is a gap that separates the instructor led approach from other learning approaches that have been proven to be more effective (Prince, 2004). This article will examine an in-class application of Active Learning activities that allowed students to own their learning and to collaborate in authentic and productive ways in the classroom.

Proposed Pedagogy: The pedagogy for this project will be based on Active Learning and Cooperative Learning. Active Learning involves activities where students are directly and actively participating in the learning process itself. This means that instead of simply receiving information verbally and visually, students are receiving and participating and doing. A subset of Active Learning is Collaborative Learning, in which activities that engage students in interacting with one another while learning and applying the course material are applied. Usually it involves breaking the class into small groups (of two or three students) to solve a problem or work on an assignment. Research shows that passive involvement generally leads to a limited retention of knowledge by students (Mosley & Kline, 2006). This is clearly indicated in the diagram (Cone of Learning) shown below.

What we tend to remember after two weeks

Using Active Learning techniques has been shown to increase student retention and comprehension of the course material. Students have an opportunity to provide personal insights and interpretation (develop their own answers). The process allows students to experiment with ideas, to develop concepts, and to integrate concepts into systems. Research shows that active learning seeks to engage a greater range of students in effective learning (Schrand, 2008). Active learning also develops social experiences between students and between teacher and students and can foster a sense of community within the classroom.


Assessment was conducted using student evaluations. The evaluations were designed with statements associated with Likert scores ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. There was also a qualitative component where students expressed their experiences and feelings about the project in their own words.

The first evaluation was distributed from September 9-23, 2011, and was used as a baseline instrument. The second evaluation was distributed December 13-17, 2011, at the end of the semester. The assessment was created and distributed using SALG (Student Assessment of Learning Gains). Significant results are presented below.

Results of assessment of Understanding, Skills and Attitudes


This course was developed with the support of a five-year $2-million Title III Strengthening Institutions grant from the US Department of Education. Farmingdale State College (FSC) is currently undertaking a comprehensive strategic initiative that is designed to foster:

  • A more learner-centered institution that exhibits the following features: engaging pedagogies and first-year programs;
  • A supportive environment that includes robust student orientation, developmental and proactive academic advisement, mentoring, and support services;
  • A Students-First ethos that pervades the hiring, orientation and development of faculty and staff;
  • Systematic tracking and documentation of student learning; and
  • Continuous improvement and strategic planning that is supported by assessment data about student learning and institutional performance.

The investigation revealed that students feel an increased level of enthusiasm, interest and confidence concerning computer programming as a result of their work in this class. The results also indicate that students felt a significant gain in their understanding robotics and engineering as well as in computer programming. Any reported increase in understanding, skills, and attitudes must be given consideration. While many institutions have incorporated technology in various forms into their curriculum, their teaching pedagogies, as previously discussed, have remained largely unchanged. The results from this study suggest that the manner in which the course material is presented can make a difference in the learning process.

As evidenced by these findings, the combination of incorporating technology with active learning has improved students’ understanding of subject matter as well as their attitude and self-efficacy in a subject where attrition has been traditionally been a concern. Students who participated in this course also have become involved in activities outside the classroom. Several students volunteered at the fall 2011 FSC open house. During open house, students wrote programs and demonstrated them to potential students using their robotic creations. Several students also volunteered to serve as FSC hosted a First Lego League (FLL) competition on December 10, 2011. During the FLL, students served as timekeepers, advisors and mentors to middle school students involved in the competition.

The results of the survey combined with student involvement in activities outside the classroom have proven to demonstrate that students feel an increased sense of commitment to FSC as well as to other students and faculty. Students have also reported an increase in their ability to think critically and logically and to analyze and solve problems. These results indicate that there is an increased the likelihood of retaining students in the curriculum and also demonstrate a sense of excitement concerning the subject matter. Systematic tracking and documentation of student learning will continue in an effort to detail the long-term effects and benefits of this program and provide the needed foundation for the continued development of similar programs.


Dale, E. (1946.) The cone of experience. In Audio-visual methods in teaching. (pp. 37-51). New York: Dryden Press. In D. P. Ely & T. Plomp (Eds.), Classic Writings on Instructional Technology (Vol. 1, pp. 169 – 180). Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Fishman, J. (2007.) Robots to the rescue. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(39).

Mosley, P. Kline, R. (2006.) Engaging Students: A Framework Using LEGO® Robotics to Teach Problem Solving. Information Technology, Learning and Performance Journal 24(1).

Schrand, 2008. Tapping into Active Learning and Multiple Intelligences With Interactive Multimedia: A Low-Threshold Classroom Approach, College Teaching, v56 n2 p78-84 Spring, 2008.

Student Assessment of Learning Gains. Retrieved from

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