Towards a Neuroscience of Computer Programming & Education: A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University of East Anglia for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Research undertaken in the School of Psychology, University of East Anglia.

Andreas Lidstrom

Research output: Other contribution


Computer programming is fast becoming a required part of School curricula, but students find the topic challenging and university dropout rates are high. Observations suggest that hands-on keyboard typing improves learning, but quantitative evidence for this is lacking and the mechanisms are still unclear. Here we study neural and behavioral processes of programming in general, and Hands-on in particular. In project 1, we taught naïve teenagers programming in a classroom-like session, where one student in a pair typed code (Hands-on) while the other participated by discussion (Hands-off). They were scanned with fMRI 1-2 days later while evaluating written code, and their knowledge was tested again after a week. We find confidence and math grades to be important for learning, and easing of intrinsic inhibitions of parietal, temporal, and superior frontal activation to be a typical neural mechanism during programming, more so in stronger learners. Moreover, left inferior frontal cortex plays a central role; operculum integrates information from the dorsal and ventral streams and its intrinsic connectivity predicts confidence and long-term memory, while activity in Broca’s area also reflects deductive reasoning. Hands-on led to greater confidence and memory retention. In project 2, we investigated the impact of feedback on motivation and reaction time in a rule-switching task. We find that feedback targeting personal traits increasingly impair performance and motivation over the experiment, and we find that activity in precentral gyrus and anterior insula decrease linearly over time during the personal feedback condition, implicating these areas in this effect. These findings promote hands-on learning and emphasize possibilities for feedback interventions on motivation. Future studies should investigate interventions for increasing Need for Cognition, the relationship between computer programming and second language learning (L2), and the role of explicit verbalization of knowledge for successful coding, given the language-like processing of code.
Original languageEnglish
TypePhD Thesis
Media of outputtext
Number of pages236
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jul 2022


  • programming
  • language
  • embodied cognition
  • learning
  • confidence
  • fMRI
  • DCM
  • logic
  • syntax
  • semantics
  • spatial
  • education

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