Paper is Out, Computers are In

“Giving students pencil and paper tests on computer science seems like an anachronism.”

This year, I am teaching a new subject: Introduction to Computer Science for high schoolers. In high school, I remember being intimidated and mystified by computer science and this class is designed specifically to address this issue. The outline for the class is designed by the TEALS Program which is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The program enlists experts from the tech industry to help new computer science teachers with designing and teaching their subject.  In the class, we are using the free, visual Snap! programming language from Berkeley.

IMG_1489-2Entering my third week of class, students are already designing “Mario” style video games where characters (“sprites”) move, interact with, and earn points in the environment (“the stage”). This is exciting, but it’s not all fun and games (literally); we are also working on the practice of breaking down big problems into smaller ones. And, if I want my students to do this in their classwork, I need to do this with my teaching. Instead of assessing whether or not students understood the whole, big picture with a unit exam, I want to give my students more formative assessments and feedback to make sure they are meeting each step as they move towards this big goal.

The customizability and feedback functionality in Edcite have really helped me create meaningful digital assignments for my students.  Since Snap! is a relatively new program and computer science classes are rare in high school, there is a noticeable lack of content, digital or otherwise, available.  Giving students pencil and paper tests on computer science also seems like an anachronism. Luckily, Edcite allows me to create digital assignments for my computer science class.

I’d like to highlight three of Edcite’s question types that have been useful for my computer science class:

  • Select Response (multiple choice): This is a good way to scaffold difficult content (see Q1 on this assignment)
  • Touch Image: This is a great way to actually assess whether students understand which block is correct.  I can input a screenshot of a program and set which block is the correct answer (see Q4 on this assignment). These questions save time because student responses are auto-graded.
  • Free Response: I can also ask my students deeper, more conceptual questions using free response. Though these are not auto-graded, I can grade the assignment by question (see the screenshot below) and add notes with comments or questions for my students. I used free response to get students to share what they know and what they need to learn for the Mario Project. Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 1.20.30 PM

Though it was intimidating to have to start an entirely new curriculum from scratch, I decided to see this challenge as an opportunity. I’m teaching a cutting-edge subject, and I wanted to be cutting-edge with my students. Creating digital assignments for students is more engaging and reinforces the concepts I want them to learn in a computer science course. And, hopefully, the act of putting my assignments online will help me acquire as many computer skills are my kids do this year.


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