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Development of Computational Thinking Skills through Unplugged Activities in Primary School


Abstract and Figures

Computational thinking is nowadays being widely adopted and investigated. Educators and researchers are using two main approaches to teach these skills in schools: with computer programming exercises, and with unplugged activities that do not require the use of digital devices or any kind of specific hardware. While the former is the mainstream approach, the latter is especially important for schools that do not have proper technology resources, Internet connections or even electrical power. However, there is a lack of investigations that prove the effectiveness of the unplugged activities in the development of computational thinking skills, particularly for primary schools. This paper, which summarizes a quasi-experiment carried out in two primary schools in Spain, tries to shed some light on this regard. The results show that students in the experimental groups, who took part in the unplugged activities, enhanced their computational thinking skills significantly more than their peers in the control groups who did not participate during the classes, proving that the unplugged approach may be effective for the development of this ability.
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Development of Computational Thinking Skills
through Unplugged Activities in Primary School
Christian P. Brackmann
Instituto Federal Farroupilha (IFFAR)
Santa Maria
Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Marcos Román-González
Universidad Nacional de Educación a
Distancia (UNED)
Madrid, Spain
Gregorio Robles
Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC)
Fuenlabrada, Madrid, Spain
Jesús Moreno-León
Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC)
Fuenlabrada, Madrid, Spain
Ana Casali
Univ. Nacional de Rosario (UNR)
Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina
Dante Barone
U. Fed. do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS)
P. Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Computational thinking is nowadays being widely adopted and
investigated. Educators and researchers are using two main ap-
proaches to teach these skills in schools: with computer program-
ming exercises, and with unplugged activities that do not require
the use of digital devices or any kind of specic hardware. While
the former is the mainstream approach, the latter is especially im-
portant for schools that do not have proper technology resources,
Internet connections or even electrical power. However, there is a
lack of investigations that prove the eectiveness of the unplugged
activities in the development of computational thinking skills, par-
ticularly for primary schools. This paper, which summarizes a quasi-
experiment carried out in two primary schools in Spain, tries to
shed some light on this regard. The results show that students in the
experimental groups, who took part in the unplugged activities, en-
hanced their computational thinking skills signicantly more than
their peers in the control groups who did not participate during the
classes, proving that the unplugged approach may be eective for
the development of this ability.
Social and professional topics Computational thinking
Computational science and engineering education
ing literacy;
Computational Thinking Unplugged, Evaluation, Computers in
Education, Primary School, Elementary Education, Computational
Thinking Test, Assessment
ACM Reference format:
Christian P. Brackmann, Marcos Román-González, Gregorio Robles, Jesús
Moreno-León, Ana Casali, and Dante Barone. 2017. Development of Compu-
tational Thinking Skills through Unplugged Activities in Primary School. In
ACM acknowledges that this contribution was authored or co-authored by an employee,
contractor or aliate of a national government. As such, the Government retains a
nonexclusive, royalty-free right to publish or reproduce this article, or to allow others
to do so, for Government purposes only.
WiPSCE ’17, November 8–10, 2017, Nijmegen, Netherlands
©2017 Association for Computing Machinery.
ACM ISBN 978-1-4503-5428-8/17/11. . . $15.00
Proceedings of 12th Workshop in Primary and Secondary Computing Education,
Nijmegen, Netherlands, November 8–10, 2017 (WiPSCE ’17), 8pages.
This document is a draft version. Final, published version can be
accessed at ACM Digital Library
In the last years, countries from all over the world have started to
modify their national curricula to introduce Computational Think-
ing (CT) skills [
]. A review of policy initiatives for integrating
CT in compulsory education in European countries reveals two
reasons behind this movement: i) to prepare for future employment
and ll ICT job vacancies; and ii) to enable students to think in
a dierent way, express themselves using new media and solve
real-world problems [6].
Although the most common strategy to teach CT skills uses
computerized activities mainly based on dierent types of program-
ming tasks, educators and scholars are also using another approach
with unplugged activities (i.e., in which there is no use of digital
devices) [
]. Such activities involve logic games, cards, strings
or physical movements that are used to represent and understand
computer science concepts such as algorithms or data transmission.
The unplugged approach is the only one possible for a huge
number of schools around the world that do not have basic tech-
nology infrastructure [
], such as electricity, Internet, computers,
mobile devices, and other electronic devices. According to UNESCO,
the use of ICT in education is still at a very early stage in most
countries in sub-Saharan Africa, since the percentage of basic in-
frastructures in primary schools is under 15% in all the region [
In other regions, such as Asia, the percentage of schools with basic
infrastructure is also far from being close to 100% [
]. But even in
most European countries, there are still remote, rural areas with a
lack of proper resources.
In this scenario, it is of capital importance to perform research
that analyzes the eectiveness of the unplugged approach for the
teaching of CT skills. This is the main goal of the investigation
reported in this paper, in which we collaborated with two primary
schools in Spain to perform a quasi-experiment to study dierences
WiPSCE ’17, November 8–10, 2017, Nijmegen, Netherlands Brackmann, Román-González, Robles, Moreno-León, Casali and Barone
in the development of CT skills between learners who participated
in a series of unplugged activities, and students who did not take
those lessons.
In addition, if evidences of the eectiveness of the unplugged
approach are found, it would reinforce the theory that CT is mainly
a problem-solving cognitive process/ability, which is possible to
develop not only trough computer programming [36] [37].
The paper is structured as follows. In Section 2we review re-
search using the unplugged approach to teach computer science
concepts and CT skills in schools. Then, in Section 3, we introduce
the methods used during the intervention, including a description of
the participants, instruments, class sessions, and other procedures.
In Sections 4and 5, we present and discuss the results and limita-
tions, respectively. Finally, the main conclusions are summarized
in Section 6, where we also discuss ideas for future research.
The rst records of unplugged activities are found in 1997 when
Bell published a draft version of "Computer Science Unplugged...
O-line activities and games for all ages", which was published in
1998 [
]. The book was targeted mainly for primary and secondary
teachers, and it was very well accepted by educators and scholars
alike. Due to the quality of the material, it was recommended by
the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) as part of the
Computer Science Teachers Association school curriculum [
] and
the activities were published on the CS Unplugged web page1.
Although the use of computer programming activities is the
main approach to teach CT skills in schools, educators and scholars
are also making use of the unplugged approach, as stated in a
systematic literature review that studied 125 papers focused on
CT [
]. Similar conclusions are reached in a survey on how to
teach Computing [
], where 13% of 357 participating in-service
teachers arm that they use unplugged activities in their computer
science lessons. Nonetheless, while the eectiveness of computer
programming to foster the development of CT skills is being widely
investigated [22], this is not the case for the unplugged approach.
Most of experiences using unplugged activities aim to foster
learners’ interest in computer science. Using questionnaires and
interviews, the eect of the CS unplugged activities on middle-
school students’ views about computer science is examined in [
The results show that “although students generally understood
what CS is, they perceived the computer as the essence of CS and
not primarily as a tool, contrary to the intention of the activities”.
With similar goals and results, the CS unplugged program was
implemented as part of a one-year outreach program for high school
students aiming to “excite the next generation of undergraduates
about pursuing a degree in computer science” [
]. The ndings
show that the program had no impact on learners’ perceived content
understanding nor on their attitudes towards computer science.
Dierent results are achieved in [
], though, where a group of
researchers visit several fourth grade classes aiming to increase
interest in computer science making use of CS unplugged activi-
ties. The results, based on pre-tests and post-tests, show improved
condence and interest in both computer science and mathematics.
Positive results are also found in [
], which summarizes the work
1CS Unplugged Book:
performed in 26 dierent schools for a total of 14,040 hours of classes
using unplugged activities. This exploratory study concludes that
CT unplugged lessons are a valuable alternative to regular, on-line
programming lessons.
The use of the unplugged approach for teacher training has
been studied as well. A series of workshops were organized to
explore the eectiveness of unplugged methods to introduce edu-
cators to computer science topics [
]. The evaluation, based on
surveys, “suggests that unplugged activities make for an inspiring
and fun session for teachers that they also nd useful, interesting
and condence building”. In a similar vein, [
] describes how un-
plugged activities embedded in stories can be used to teach CT ideas.
Specically, the paper presents two examples, “one based on the
problem of helping people with locked-in syndrome communicate,
the second based around magic tricks”. After a 2-hour professional
development workshop for teachers, attendants provide positive
feedback, 100% of them stating that the workshop had given them
useful ideas for the classroom.
Most of the afore reviewed investigations focus on measuring
participants’ enthusiasm and interest for computing, but there is
no assessment on whether participants develop their CT skills with
unplugged activities. This is exactly the goal of interventions with
middle schools students using an unplugged curriculum [
] [
The results support the hypothesis that students do learn CT skills
from unplugged activities at least as eective as when following
more conventional approaches.
Campos et al. [
] used a CT quiz, which consists of four questions
about abstraction, correlation, and codication, to measure students’
CT skills before and after the implementation of CT unplugged
activities from the CS Unplugged Book. The results, however, were
not conclusive.
The review of the literature, hence, highlights that there is a need
for more empirical research providing evidence on the usefulness of
unplugged activities to develop CT skills, especially when it comes
to its use in primary schools. Consequently, in this paper, we try to
shed some light on this matter.
In this section, we describe the sample in our research, and how
participants were divided into two dierent groups-conditions:
the experimental group-condition and the control group-condition.
Then, we present the instrument used for assessing the CT skills of
the participants from both conditions, with a pre-test and a post-
test. The pedagogical materials containing the unplugged activities
taken by the experimental group along the teaching sessions are
then explained. Finally, we report the procedure followed in our
3.1 Participants
The valid sample of our quasi-experiment, that is, the set of indi-
viduals who were assessed both in the pre-test and post-test time,
is composed of 73 students enrolled in 5th and 6th grade (10-12
years old) from two dierent public primary schools located in
Madrid (Spain). The distribution of the sample regarding school,
grade, gender, and condition, is presented in Table 1.
Development of CT Skills through Unplugged Activities in Primary School WiPSCE ’17, November 8–10, 2017, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Table 1: Distribution of the valid sample (n=73) by grade, age,
condition (column Cond), and gender. Possible conditions
are: E for ‘Experimental’ and C for ‘Control’.
Grade Age Cond Gender Total
Boys Girls
School A 5th 10-11 y.o. C 10 13 23
E 10 10 20
School B 6th 11-12 y.o. C 6 8 14
E 9 7 16
Total 35 38 73
3.2 Instrument and Materials
3.2.1 Computational Thinking Test. The Computational Think-
ing Test (CT Test) [
] was the instrument used to assess
the level of CT in the participants in our research. The CT Test
measures "the ability to formulate and solve problems by relying
on fundamental concepts of computation (i.e., sequences, loops,
conditionals, functions, and variables), and using the inherent logic
of computer programming". All the items that assemble the test
involve, to a greater or lesser extent, the four-pillar cognitive pro-
cesses of CT: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction and
algorithmic design. Thus, when a student tries to solve an item
(e.g., item #8, see Figure 1), he/she must: break down the steps that
the Pac-Man should follow; recognize the visual patterns on the
marked path (e.g, in the item #8 there is a repeated pattern that
consists of advancing four squares and then turning to the right);
abstract the core elements of the problem and ignore the irrelevant
details (e.g., such as the colour of the path or the features of the
characters); and design an algorithm to solve the problem, which
involves some computational concepts (e.g., in item #8, nested loops
must be used along the algorithmic design).
The CT Test was selected for our research because of its pre-
cise (although necessarily reductionist) operational denition of
CT, which may shed some light on the controversy surrounding
this often blurry construct [
] [
]. The CT Test was also elected
due its quantitative and aptitudinal approach, and because it has
already undergone a rigorous validation process, which has stated
its content validity [
], criterion validity [
], and convergent
validity [26].
Overall, the psychometric studies of the CT Test support that
this test is reliable (
.80) and valid for assessing the level of CT
in students from 10 to 16 years old. The CT Test is composed of a
set of 28 multiple choice items with four answer options (only one
correct), and it is created and executed on Google Forms technology,
being available therefore on virtually any device
. Examples of CT
Test items are shown in Figure 1, Figure 2and Figure 3.
3.2.2 Materials for Computational Thinking Unplugged. Most of
the pedagogical materials about the unplugged activities taken by
the experimental group have been created by the authors, while
some were adapted and translated to Spanish from the “Hello Ruby”
book [
] and the “Code Master” board game [
]. Some of the
2A sample copy of the CT Test is available at:
Figure 1: CT Test, item #8 (’maze’): loops ’repeat times’
(nested); ’visual blocks’; ’sequencing’.
Figure 2: CT Test, item #16 (’maze’): loops ’repeat until’ +
if/else conditionals (nested); ’visual blocks’; ’debugging’.
Figure 3: CT Test, item #26 (’canvas’): loops ’repeat times’ +
simple functions; ’visual blocks’; ’completing’.
activities are presented in Table 2, and most of them are available
in the “Computacional” website3.
3.3 Procedure
Students in the 5th and 6th grade from two public schools in Madrid
(Spain) were invited to participate in the research as part of their
regular classes during the second semester of 2016 and the rst
semester of 2017. We respected the existing grouping of the subjects
WiPSCE ’17, November 8–10, 2017, Nijmegen, Netherlands Brackmann, Román-González, Robles, Moreno-León, Casali and Barone
Table 2: Six examples of activities performed by the children
Activity Explanation Main Pillars
"Decomposition" activity:
Students had to break down many
problems (e.g. Plant a tree) identifying all the steps necessary to
solve it. Other examples were: Wash Hands, Prepare breakfast,
Take an elevator, Tie a shoe, etc.
"Monica’s Map" activity:
A map with many characters is
shown to the students and they have to nd the shortest route
between them using only up, down, left and right arrows (
, and
). On a second moment, they should use multipliers
(i.e. →→→→→= 5x) to write down the solutions.
Pattern Recognition
"Elephants" activity:
uses a popular students song as exempli-
cation of how a song can turn to an algorithm. In this particu-
lar song, the repetition, variables, and conditionals are worked
through the increase of the amount of the elephants. Every
verse had an increase of the variable until it reached a number
equal or bigger than 10.
Pattern Recognition
"Tetris" activity:
some drawings of Tetris pieces are presented
to one of the students who gives instructions to its partner. The
student who got the upper part of the paper had to hide the
images from the partner so it would be possible only to hear the
instructions without looking to the answers. The instructions
are limited to "start", "up", "down", "left", "right", and "stop". No
other words can be used to describe how the gure is drawn.
Pattern Recognition
"Repetition Drawing" activity:
allows the students to under-
stand the use of repetitions on Tetris-like gures. In this case,
the students need to use instructions based on the perspective
of the direction of the arrow and try to use the most amount
of multipliers in their command. Dierently from the "Tetris"
activity, the students do it individually and only the use of turn
left, turn right and forward are available (
, and
). The
pillars of abstraction, pattern recognition and algorithm are
mainly developed.
Pattern Recognition
"Monica’s Automata":
The last activity is a simpler remake
of the Code Master board game developed by the ThinkFun
company. In this activity the student is supposed to nd a route
between two nodes using the allowed colors for each path. All
the colors had to be used, leaving no blank spaces. The number
located on the left side is the start point and on the right side
the nish point.
Development of CT Skills through Unplugged Activities in Primary School WiPSCE ’17, November 8–10, 2017, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Figure 4: Stages and groups of the project
in their natural classrooms for the assignment of the experimental
and control conditions. In other words, the individuals were not
randomly assigned to the conditions, so that a quasi-experiment
was performed.
For the CT Test collective administration in pre-test time (week
#1), none of the students had prior formal programming experience.
The test was performed in the school’s computer lab. After some
students had nished the test, we kept them busy so that they do
not distract those students still taking the test.
During the next ve weeks, lessons involving CT unplugged
activities were administered by the researchers once a week to the
experimental group. At rst, the schools allowed the researchers to
use only one hour per week, but after observing the high motivation
of the students and the approval of the teacher, the schools allowed
to double the time per week. So, a total of 10 hours of CT unplugged
sessions were given. Meanwhile, the control group did not receive
any intervention from the researchers.
On average, it was possible to implement two activities per ses-
sion. On week #7, students from both groups were invited again to
take the CT Test in the same way as described before. Therefore,
six weeks elapsed between the pre-test and the post-test, which is
a sucient time to avoid the undesirable ’memory-eect’ of using
an identical set of items at both administrations. A diagram of all
the steps of the research is depicted in Figure 4.
All answers by students to the CT Test were stored and available
to preview, convert and download on Google Spreadsheets. Answers
were then imported and analyzed with the 24
version of IBM
SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences).
This section presents and discusses our ndings from a double
point of view. On the one hand, we report the quantitative results
from our quasi-experiment, which intends to answer the following
research question: Did the unplugged activities improve the CT
skills of the students? On the other hand, we complement the afore
mentioned ’hard’ results with a qualitative approach, including in
the discussion the informal observations of the researchers during
the unplugged activities and the CT Test administrations.
4.1 Quantitative Results: Performance in the
CT Test
The Table 3shows the summary quantitative results of our quasi-
experiment for the entire valid sample. As it can be seen, the control
group had not a statistical signicant improvement in the CT Test
Figure 5: Error bars with the 95% condence intervals for the
means of the CT Test Score for both groups-conditions, and
in pre-test and post-test times.
score between the pre-test and the post-test (t= 1.128; p(t)= .267
> .05); the eect size of the improvement in the control group
was d=.17 [
], that can be considered as ’no eect’ at all [
Conversely, a statistical signicant pre-post improvement in the CT
Test score is found in the experimental group (t=4.431; p(t)= .000 <
.001), which involves a ’large’ eect size (d=.80). These results are
depicted in Figure 5.
As it can also be seen in Figure 5, there were not statistically
signicant dierences in the CT Test score between the control
group and the experimental group at the time of pre-test (t= 1.441;
p(t)= .154 > .05). This result indicates that both groups were ini-
tially equivalent at the beginning of the quasi-experiment, which
is desirable in this type of research design. Conversely, statistically
signicant dierences were found between the control group and
the experimental group after our intervention on the latter. (t=
3.730; p(t)= .000 < .001).
In order to test the overall statistical signicance of our quasi-
experiment, we perform an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA),
which checks the dierences between control and experimental
groups in post-test time taking into account the dierences, if any,
in pre-test time. The ANCOVA results are statistically signicant
(F(1,72)=11.690; p(F)=.001 < .01), in favor of the experimental group,
with an associated global eect size of our quasi-experiment d=.59
], which can be considered in the ‘zone of desired eects’ to
arm the eectiveness of an educational intervention [
]. Fur-
thermore, this global value is very similar to that found for the CT
Test score in a recent and analogous quasi-experiment performed
with middle school students who took a 12-weeks course
[28], where a global d=.62 was reported.
WiPSCE ’17, November 8–10, 2017, Nijmegen, Netherlands Brackmann, Román-González, Robles, Moreno-León, Casali and Barone
Table 3: Summary of quantitative results regarding performance in the CT Test for the entire sample
Mean N SD Student’s t pre-post d ANCOVA F Global d
Control Pre-test 10.27 37 3.263 1.128 0.17
11.690** 0.59
Post-test 10.84 37 3.625
Experimental Pre-test 11.33 36 3.033 4.431*** 0.80
Post-test 13.75 36 3.008
*** p-value < .001; ** p-value < .01; * p-value < .05
Figure 6: Error bars with the 95% condence intervals for the
means of the CT Test Score, split by school and grade, for
both groups-conditions, and in pre-test and post-test times.
We consider that these ndings have two more additional impli-
cations. Firstly, they support the assertion that the CT Test is valid
and sensitive to detect improvements in the CT skills of the stu-
dents, not only after taking on-line coding courses such as the ones
of [
], but also after receiving CT unplugged activities.
Secondly, our results give evidence that the size of the improvement
is similar after both types of interventions; this fact might guide
future curriculum decisions of teachers and policy makers.
When we split our analysis regarding school and grade (Table 4,
Figure 6), we obtain results that globally replicate those found in
the entire sample. Furthermore, these segmented results show that
the CT Test score seems to increase consistently, not only due to
intervention, but also due to age (although this increase regarding
age is not statistically signicant in our quasi-experiment). Hence,
it might be hypothesized that the performance on the CT Test tends
to increase as it does the grade. This result would be consistent
with the assumption that CT is mainly a problem-solving ability
that it should be therefore linked to the cognitive development and
maturity of the subjects [
], and it was already found during our
large validation study of the CT Test [29]
Overall, our results permit us to answer the research question.
It has been demonstrated through a quasi-experimental research
design that our set of CT unplugged activities improve the CT skills
of the students as measured by the CT Test.
4.2 Qualitative Results: Performance along the
Unplugged Activities
As mentioned in subsection 3.3, the schools initially allowed the
researchers to use only one hour per week for the unplugged activi-
ties; but after watching the motivation of the students, the teachers
asked to double the time per week. It was surprising to the re-
searchers because the principals of the schools emphasized at the
beginning of the quasi-experiment that it would not be possible.
Many notes were taken while the activities were conducted at the
schools. Most annotations were related to minor adjustments or cor-
rections of the instructions and small tweaks to better understand
the activities. Some of the relevant notes describing qualitative ob-
servations of the teaching-learning process are pointed out below.
Please see Table 2as reference.
The "Monica’s Decomposition" activity was the rst exer-
cise the groups carried out after the pre-test. The students
could not quite understand what they were supposed to
do because they were not used to decompose problems.
After solving the rst two questions as an example, they
were able to nish the other ones. When everybody was
nished, the researcher read some answers and dramatized
the movements to the others students. Many "bugs" were
encountered in their algorithm and solved by the students
"Monica’s Map" activity had an excellent acceptance by
the students and it was easy to perform. Some students
nished the activity in few minutes, and others took a long
time to conclude it. Most students had a hard time nding
the path from one point to another in the map and had to
x what they had done before. Many students also did not
take the shortest path between two points and a correction
was necessary.
The "Elephants" activity was one of the most cheerful ex-
ercises because it involved several choruses and code read-
ing/processing. Since the song was made for small children,
the researcher felt that some students from the 6th grade
felt uncomfortable with the song. It was the most creative
and attractive way found to teach variables to students,
and it was possible to achieve the objective.
During the "Tetris" activity, the students had the oppor-
tunity to sit in pairs. Many mistakes happened when the
students started the rst drawing and errors were getting
less often on the following challenges. The instructions
Development of CT Skills through Unplugged Activities in Primary School WiPSCE ’17, November 8–10, 2017, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Table 4: Summary of quantitative results regarding performance in the CT Test, split by school and grade
Mean N SD Student’s t pre-post d ANCOVA F Global d
School A
(5th Grade)
Control Pre-test 9.70 23 3.154 -.916 0.19
7.804** 0.55
Post-test 10.30 23 3.309
Experimental Pre-test 11.20 20 3.122 -3.487** 0.75
Post-test 13.55 20 3.103
School B
(6th Grade)
Control Pre-test 11.21 14 3.332 -.633 0.15
Post-test 11.71 14 4.065
Experimental Pre-test 11.50 16 3.011 -2.725* 0.83
Post-test 14.00 16 2.966
*** p-value < .001; ** p-value < .01; * p-value < .05; p-value < .10
were not respected many times, and the investigator had
to step in.
During the "Repetition Drawing", many students had dif-
culties to understand the position and direction in the
perspective of the arrow. The exercises had to be explained
several times until they understood the dierence between
this exercise and the “Monica’s Map” moving strategy. The
best way to make them better understand was standing up
and to walk/turn according to the instructions they wrote
on the paper.
"Monica’s Automata", which is based on Code Master board
game, was the most motivating activity, because it involved
several steps (cut, paste and strategize). Since the exercises
have more than one correct answer, the students enjoyed
very much discussing about the diverse possibilities.
Some limitations and threats to validity of our research can be
pointed out. Firstly, the CT Test has some limitations, since it is
heavily focused on computational concepts, only partially cov-
ers computational practices, and ignores computational perspec-
tives [
]. Moreover, the CT Test has a (deliberately) reductionist
conception of CT, which puts over-emphasis on path-nding algo-
rithms. Secondly, most of the unplugged activities carried out along
the research might be considered as excessively and articially
aligned with the items of the CT Test. Therefore, if a dierent set
of unplugged activities had been used, we would probably have ob-
tained dierent results. Finally, the small size of the sample should
be noted (N < 120), in order to consider the limited generalization
power of our results.
This paper presents a quasi-experiment carried out in two primary
schools in Spain aiming to develop students’ CT skills through a
series of unplugged activities. The students were divided into two
groups in each of the schools; the experimental groups were the
ones who participated in the unplugged class, while the control
groups did not take those lessons. The results show that the CT skills
of the students in the experimental groups signicantly increased
after the intervention, while this was not the case for the control
groups. Consequently, these ndings provide empirical evidence
about the eectiveness of the unplugged approach to develop CT
skills. They also contribute to rearm CT as a cognitive variable,
which mainly consists in a problem-solving ability/process whose
development can be disconnected from computer programming
[36] [37].
It must be taken into account that these results were achieved
after just 10 hours of unplugged activities led by a researcher who
is not a native Spanish speaker, and that the eect size found is
very similar to the one detected in a previous investigation after
12 weeks of programming training in the platform [
which highlights the real impact that the unplugged lessons had in
the development of CT of participants.
Nevertheless, even if the unplugged activities can be a good
resource for introducing students into CT, it is apparent that this
approach has limitations and, therefore, further research is neces-
sary to identify the point at which the unplugged approach loses its
eectiveness and the use of computing devices is required to keep
on developing CT skills. Some investigations are already merging
the two approaches and allowing the students to migrate from
unplugged to plugged activities [16] [19] [2] in a smoother pace.
Aiming to broaden the sample and replicate the experiment in
a dierent country, at the moment of writing this paper a new
research is being carried out in Brazilian schools. The ndings of
these new interventions will allow us to state stronger conclusions
regarding the eectiveness of the unplugged approach as a resource
to develop CT skills, as well as to identify potential similarities and
dierences between countries.
This work was partially supported by the SMART
Project and
by the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC). The work has also
been funded in part by the Region of Madrid under project“eMadrid
- Investigación y Desarrollo de tecnologías para el e-learning en
la Comunidad de Madrid (S2013/ICE-2715)”. The authors are very
thankful to the teachers and pupils of CEIP República de Ecuador
school and CEIP Lope de Vega school (Madrid, Spain). Our gratitude
to Yucnary Torres who kindly helped the foreign researcher. We are
also very thankful to Estúdios Mauricio de Souza S.A. and ThinkFun
Inc. for expressly allowing the use of their creations in the activities.
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... Unplugged programming activities are separated from electronic devices such as computers and represent concepts related to computer science through a series of logical tasks that deepen the learning of programming thinking. The advantage of the unplugged approach by reducing the abstraction of programming concepts, especially for students with no programming experience (Brackmann et al., 2017). Plugged-in programming usually involves interaction with programming software on the computer and allows for the development of students' programming skills by increasing their interest in programming through a gamified interactive interface (Ouahbi et al., 2015). ...
... In current research trends, students' CT skills are improved mainly through plugged-in and unplugged programming activities. Unplugged programming involves learning computer science through outdoor activities, card games, or puzzles, separated from the computer (Brackmann et al., 2017). For example, Kim et al. (2014) used paper and pencil programming, which is programming in the form of symbols and flowcharts to help students understand data structure algorithms and improve CT skills. ...
... For example, Kim et al. (2014) used paper and pencil programming, which is programming in the form of symbols and flowcharts to help students understand data structure algorithms and improve CT skills. Other researchers implemented a quasi-experimental study with upper primary and seventh-grade students in middle school and revealed that students who participated in unplugged programming activities had significantly improved CT skills, especially problem-solving and logical thinking skills, compared to non-participating students (Brackmann et al., 2017;Sun et al., 2021a). Li et al. (2022) analyzed 29 pieces of literature related to unplugged programming using meta-analyses, where the findings indicated that unplugged programming activities are more applicable to primary school students. ...
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This study investigated the effects of the single programming approach (plugged-in and unplugged) and the mixed programming approach (plugged-in-first and unplugged-first) on the computational thinking (CT) skills of first-grade students. However, focusing only on the programming learning approach itself is insufficient. Therefore, the influences of students’ gender, programming experience, programming interest, and programming confidence factors on CT skills were also examined. 121 students from China were divided into four experimental and one control groups and engaged in the programming activities intervention for 10 weeks. The data consisted mainly of students’ CT skill scores before and after the programming activities intervention. The results showed that both single and mixed programming approaches significantly improved students’ CT skills, with the mixed programming approaches being more effective. Furthermore, the study found that the implementation of unplugged activities in the first stage attenuated the effects of programming experience. Furthermore, it was found that the unplugged-first programming approach was able to diminish the effect of students’ programming experience on the development of CT skills and could be an essential condition to promote the development of equal CT skills. We also clarified the important role of programming interest and programming confidence in students’ CT development. More importantly, a chain mediation effect of programming experience and programming interest between programming confidence and CT was also found. Finally, this study further discusses ideas and approaches for the future of CT education for primary school students and provides certain practical suggestions and insights for teachers and researchers.
... Leonard et al., 2016). It also shows how teachers can use the unplugged teaching strategy at schools where there are no computer labs or power connections (Brackmann et al., 2017;Rich et al., 2020). • Programme the robotic kits to perform tasks. ...
... This agrees with the findings of Sherwood et al. (2020) that CT integration can take different forms depending on the needs of the teachers or school. In addition, schools where there is no electricity can also do unplugged activities (Brackmann et al., 2017;Rich et al., 2020). Another contextual aspect that appeared in the findings was that of school leadership. ...
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Several professional development programs have been designed to train in-service teachers on a computational thinking (CT) curriculum, but few researchers have examined how these affect primary school teachers' self-efficacy and knowledge of CT in emerging economies. This study's objective was to create a framework for the professional development of primary school in-service teachers for the teaching of CT (referred to as professional development for primary computational thinking - PD4PCT) to be integrated into teachers' professional development programs. An initial framework was refined after implementing it at a Namibian school with a group of 14 teachers from five different disciplines (social studies, English, natural science, mathematics, and Afrikaans). Literature reviews, pre- and post-intervention questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, and self-reporting diaries were used to collect data. The framework was evaluated by experts via an online questionnaire. The findings show that teachers who participated in the professional development program improved their perceived CT knowledge, beliefs, and confidence to teach CT.
... Young children do not need to spend time or cognitive resources learning programming language syntax (Bell & Vahrenhold, 2018;Yadav et al., 2018). However, unplugged activities also have some shortcomings: (1) measuring learning outcomes is challenging, as there is no fixed, uniform learning content or assessment tools for computational thinking in unplugged activities (Brackmann et al., 2017;Jun, 2018;Tsarava et al., 2018). (2) course design and development is difficult because few learning resources are available. ...
... Field diaries are a way to evaluate CT by observing and recording learners' behaviors or conversations in the field. Using this approach, Brackmann et al. (2017) observed that students displayed motivation while participating in unplugged activities. Caballero-Gonzalez et al. (2019) also used this approach to record students' behavioral performances in learning Bee-Bot, thus supporting the results of an evaluation based on a programming task. ...
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Children’s preschool years are crucial for the development of computational thinking (CT) skills. However, debate continues regarding whether CT should be developed through plugged-in or unplugged activities. This study investigated the similarities and differences between plugged-in and unplugged activities with similar learning content and assessment methods for cultivating computational thinking (CT) in young children. Twenty-four young children (aged 5–6 years) from a kindergarten in Foshan, China, were randomly assigned to either the plugged-in or unplugged group to participate in a five-week study. In the plugged-in group, Dodobot was used in the classroom, while in the unplugged group, unplugged materials such as paper, pencil and tangram puzzles were used. Research results indicate that 1) both plugged-in and unplugged activities significantly improved the young children’s CT skills after a short-term educational intervention, but there were no significant differences between the two groups; 2) the extent to which the plugged-in and unplugged activities promoted subdimensions of CT was different, with the plugged-in group demonstrating significant improvements in hardware, algorithm, and modularity and the unplugged group demonstrating significant improvements in terms of representation; 3) the children from both the plugged-in and unplugged groups showed high motivation; And 4) the children in both the plugged-in and unplugged groups showed cooperative behaviors. The frequency of cooperative behavior was more related to materials, and cooperation quality was more related to teacher guidance.
... Although it is generally accepted in the literature that CT involves many skills, in terms of classroom research and implementation, CT teaching methods, content, and learning strategies should be adjusted according to the age of students, because students' cognitive ability changes with age (Hsu et al., 2018). Related to this, Brackmann et al. (2017) stated that CT is now used and learned in schools through two main methods: computer programming exercises (plug-in activities) and unplugged activities. The main difference between these two types of activities is the latter's approach to exposing students to CT without the use of computers (Huang & Looi, 2021;Relkin et al., 2021;Saxena et al., 2020;Tikva & Tambouris, 2021). ...
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Many students want to enroll in programming courses but fear the challenges ahead. They aspire to design quality systems or games after acquiring related skills but report concerns that programming logic is too difficult to learn because memorization of the syntax is required. Thus, they experience anxiety, are demotivated to learn, and, regretfully, may never enroll in programming courses. Computational thinking (CT) is a favorable method currently used in learning logic. This study proposed an easily implementable standard operating procedure for CT and incorporated it into programming courses; students were instructed and enabled to clarify the logical sequence before beginning to write a program. The standard operating procedure for CT contains five training steps, identify the problem, formulate the problem-solving steps, organize and summarize, draw a flowchart, and write a program. This kind of training can help students clarify the logical order more clearly to facilitate writing programs, thereby improving motivation to learn, reducing learning anxiety, and ultimately improving learning outcomes. The experiment results revealed significant results regarding the learning outcomes, motivation to learn, and learning anxiety of the experimental group learning programming through CT-centered teaching in comparison with those of the group learning through conventional teaching. Additionally, for female students, who were revealed to be initially less capable of logical thinking than male students, the following post intervention improvements were observed: adequate improvement in learning outcomes, increased motivation to learn, and reduced learning anxiety.
Background and Objective . Teacher assessment research suggests that teachers have good conceptual understanding of CT. However, to model CT based problem-solving in their classrooms, teachers need to develop the ability to recognize when and how to apply CT skills. Does existing professional development (PD) equip teachers to know when and how to apply CT skills? What factors should PD providers consider while developing trainings for CT application skills? Method . This retrospective observational study used a binomial regression model to determine what factors predict teachers’ probability of performing well on a CT application skills test. Participants . Participants of this study were 129 in-service K-12 teachers from a community of practice in India. Findings . Results show that teachers who have received at least one CT training, who have a higher teaching experience, and are currently teaching CT will have a higher probability of applying CT skills correctly to problems irrespective of the subject they teach and their educational backgrounds. However, receiving higher number of CT PD trainings was a negative predictor of teachers’ performance. Implications . Implications for school administrators, professional development providers, and researchers are discussed. Teachers need ample opportunity to teach CT in their teaching schedules. Continuous professional development does not necessarily result in improved CT application skills unless careful consideration is given to the pedagogies used and to the resolution of misconceptions that teachers may have developed in prior training. Mixing plugged and unplugged pedagogical approaches may be beneficial to encourage transfer of CT application skills across different types of problems. Lastly, there is a need to develop valid and reliable instruments that measure CT application skills of teachers.
p style="text-align: justify;">This study investigated the influence of CThink4CS<sup>2</sup> Module on computational thinking (CT) skills of form four chemistry students. The CThink4CS<sup>2</sup> Module integrated CT with the Engineering Design Process (EDP) in chemistry class. This study utilized quantitative research methods and quasi-experimental design. Quantitative data were collected using the Computational Thinking Skill Test (CTST) which consisted of algorithmic reasoning, abstraction, decomposition, and pattern recognition constructs. A total of 73 students were in the treatment group (n=39) and control group (n=34). Experimental data were described by means of descriptive analysis and inferential analysis employing two-way MANOVA analysis. The results of the analysis indicated significant differences in CT skills between groups; students in the treatment group demonstrated better results compared to those in the control group. The paper provides insight into the integration of CT and EDP as effective pedagogical strategies for inculcating CT skills.</p
Computational thinking is becoming an essential skill in educational systems. There is, however, still a great deal to learn about it. This research aims to evaluate whether the inclusion of a specific material (Junior School Bebras Cards) favors the development of primary students’ computational thinking skills. For this purpose, 37 fourth-grade students participated in a quasi-experimental study to test the effectiveness of this material and its implementation using gamification. Three research questions were evaluated: the development of computational thinking skills, the influence of gamification on learning outcomes, and the influence of gamification on student motivation. The intervention was designed using the Junior School Bebras Cards, an unplugged (no technology) material proposed by UK Bebras. Two groups worked with these materials: an experimental group that received gamified instruction and a control group that received nongamified instruction. The three research questions were assessed through the comparative analyses of tests performed before and after the intervention. The results reveal that using Junior School Bebras Cards is beneficial for developing computational thinking skills; however, gamification using this material did not improve students’ learning outcomes or motivation.
Women and non-white racial and ethnic groups remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). To achieve a more diverse and equitable STEM workforce, the recruitment and retention of these historically marginalized communities in postsecondary education will also need to increase. Recently, the lens has turned to pedagogy and how creating a more inclusive classroom environment can foster STEM identity in previously marginalized communities. This work focuses on developing and piloting systems biology education modules designed to promote an inclusive learning environment in a summer outreach program for high school students by (1) utilizing a hybrid of unplugged activities with coded simulation and (2) a female-oriented problem statement. Based on initial findings in our pilot program, we anticipate that these techniques will enable students with limited prior computational experience to feel more comfortable and able to complete tasks, thereby increasing their self-efficacy and STEM identity. These modules could be a valuable tool for practitioners teaching high school or early college-level computational courses who instruct students with varied coding experience. Additionally, our analysis of the use of a female-oriented problem statement on female-identifying students' perceived self-efficacy provides potential evidence of the usefulness of representative problem statements in engaging underrepresented student populations. These techniques could be adapted to address a variety of contexts across STEM disciplines and other fields to foster inclusive learning environments.
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Computational thinking (CT) is emerging as a key set of problem-solving skills that must be developed by the new generations of digital learners. However, there is still a lack of consensus on a formal CT definition, on how CT should be integrated in educational settings, and specially on how CT can be properly assessed. The latter is an extremely relevant and urgent topic because without reliable and valid assessment tools, CT might lose its potential of making its way into educational curricula. In response, this paper is aimed at presenting the convergent validity of one of the major recent attempts to assess CT from a summative-aptitudinal perspective: the Computational Thinking Test (CTt). The convergent validity of the CTt is studied in middle school Spanish samples with respect to other two CT assessment tools, which are coming from different perspectives: the Bebras Tasks, built from a skill-transfer approach; and Dr. Scratch, an automated tool designed from a formative-iterative approach. Our results show statistically significant, positive and moderately intense, correlations between the CTt and a selected set of Bebras Tasks (r=0.52); and between the CTt and Dr. Scratch (predictive value r=0.44; concurrent value r=0.53). These results support the statement that CTt is partially convergent with Bebras Tasks and with Dr. Scratch. Finally, we discuss if these three tools are complementary and may be combined in middle school.
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This paper focuses on an introductory course in computational thinking for students at their final year in primary school, carried out at the start of the academic year 2015/2016. The course consisted of six 90 minutes' lessons that were taught once a week over the course of six weeks in 26 schools in the north of the Netherlands. The lessons were designed for students to study programming concepts without requiring computers or tablets. This paper describes the design and evaluation process for these 'unplugged' lessons in computational thinking. This paper ends with design principles for the design of lessons in computational thinking, and discusses possible directions for future research.
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The recent spread of coding literacy initiatives, such as Hour of Code, Europe Code Week, or Africa Code Week, have underlined the growing importance and interest for computational thinking, often channeled through the use of innovative teaching tools, which foster creativity, collaboration, and interactivity. Learning coding notions is generally tied to the use of computers or other electronic devices, and most recent educational tools are based on online visual programming platforms, which may lead to discrimination because of the digital divide, the lack of sufficient infrastructure, or cultural and linguistic barriers. However, many code learning activities can be performed in an “unplugged” scenario, often with as little as a pencil and some paper. In fact, CodyRoby is an example of a do-it-yourself unplugged programming kit, published in the end of 2014. Through the use of color-coded cards, inspired by the building blocks of visual programming tools, and the use of intuitive symbols instead of words, the kit enables various fully inclusive coding experiences. In this work we present a smartphone-based augmented reality system that empowers this simple tool and transforms a CodyRoby session into an immersive experience. A printable additional kit of markers allow a smartphone app to detect game components, such as the chessboard on which to play, and to present additional gaming elements on screen or to draw customizable decorative elements to stimulate engagement and creativity, especially in younger players. Several different game modes are presented and discussed. The suitability of the system to intimate, small-scale, or even large-scale coding events is also discussed.
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Researchers and educators have designed curricula and resources for introductory programming environments such as Scratch, App Inventor, and Kodu to foster computational thinking in K-12. This paper is an empirical study of the effectiveness and usefulness of tiles and flashcards developed for Microsoft Kodu Game Lab to support students in learning how to program and develop games. In particular, we investigated the impact of physical manipulatives on 3rd -- 5th grade students' ability to understand, recognize, construct, and use game programming design patterns. We found that the students who used physical manipulatives performed well in rule construction, whereas the students who engaged more with the rule editor of the programming environment had better mental simulation of the rules and understanding of the concepts.
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In the past decade, Computational Thinking (CT) and related concepts (e.g. coding, programing, algorithmic thinking) have received increasing attention in the educational field. This has given rise to a large amount of academic and grey literature, and also numerous public and private implementation initiatives. Despite this widespread interest, successful CT integration in compulsory education still faces unresolved issues and challenges. This report provides a comprehensive overview of CT skills for schoolchildren, encompassing recent research findings and initiatives at grassroots and policy levels. It also offers a better understanding of the core concepts and attributes of CT and its potential for compulsory education. The study adopts a mostly qualitative approach that comprises extensive desk research, a survey of Ministries of Education and semi-structured interviews, which provide insights from experts, practitioners and policy makers. The report discusses the most significant CT developments for compulsory education in Europe and provides a comprehensive synthesis of evidence, including implications for policy and practice.
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Computers cause an impact in almost every single aspect of our lives, however, unfortunately, schools have not been able to keep up with this irreversible evolution. The simple use of technological apparatuses in the classroom does not guarantee the improvement of the learning process, however it can be the medium through which the students find the alternatives for the solution of complex problems. The Computational Thinking is an approach of teaching that uses a diverse range of techniques derived from computers for the resolution of these problems combined with the new competencies of the 21st century (critical thinking, collaboration, etc.). The adoption of the notion of Computing within the basic education schools is a concern in many countries, where the implementation occurs in a strict way. Admittedly, it grows the idea that the Computing discipline is very distinct from the computer classes and that the use of skills from Computing possesses educational (reflection and problem solving, the comprehension that the world is ingrained with the digital technology) and economic (high demand of professionals with good training) benefits. This article, through the vast bibliographic review, describes an international landscape of countries of all Americas, in order to contextualize the reader in respect to the adoption of Computational Thinking within the basic education schools.
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Computer Science (CS) Unplugged activities have been deployed in many informal settings to present computing concepts in an engaging manner. To justify use in the classroom, however, it is critical for activities to have a strong educational component. For the past three years, we have been developing and refining a CS Unplugged curriculum for use in middle school classrooms. In this paper, we describe an assessment that maps questions from a comprehensive project to computational thinking (CT) skills and Bloom's Taxonomy. We present results from two different deployments and discuss limitations and implications of our approach.
Computational thinking (CT) is being located at the focus of educational innovation, as a set of problem-solving skills that must be acquired by the new generations of students to thrive in a digital world full of objects driven by software. However, there is still no consensus on a CT definition or how to measure it. In response, we attempt to address both issues from a psychometric approach. On the one hand, a Computational Thinking Test (CTt) is administered on a sample of 1,251 Spanish students from 5th to 10th grade, so its descriptive statistics and reliability are reported in this paper. On the second hand, the criterion validity of the CTt is studied with respect to other standardized psychological tests: the Primary Mental Abilities (PMA) battery, and the RP30 problem-solving test. Thus, it is intended to provide a new instrument for CT measurement and additionally give evidence of the nature of CT through its associations with key related psychological constructs. Results show statistically significant correlations at least moderately intense between CT and: spatial ability (r = 0.44), reasoning ability (r = 0.44), and problem-solving ability (r = 0.67). These results are consistent with recent theoretical proposals linking CT to some components of the Cattel-Horn-Carroll (CHC) model of intelligence, and corroborate the conceptualization of CT as a problem-solving ability. Available at:
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We present Haathi Mera Saathi (My Elephant Friend), a game concept which serves as a tool for teaching programming and computational thinking to underprivileged children in rural India. It provides a metaphor and gameplay for embodied and tangible games, and creates a soft early ramp up into the conceptual and digital space of learning to code. We discuss the urgency of digital inclusion for Indian rural children, with reference to technology as an amplifier which they need to learn to direct. We contrast the grounded, embodied style of Haathi Mera Saathi with the current crop of mini-languages and coding games, with particular emphasis on the need for physicality and tangibility in the very early stages of learning to code. We further discuss our experience conducting workshops for students from the tribal and rural belts of India, where we see HMS as an effective approach for taking them from a state of having no background in computers or computing, to a state where they create interactive applications in a Java based environment. Recommendations are given for researchers interested in working with rural village children.