Teaching computing: What the research says

Written by: Terry Freedman | Published:
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Many teachers have devised great ways of teaching computing, but is there any academic research that we can draw on for guidance? Terry Freedman takes a look...

Unfortunately, the initial answer to the question asked above – at least according to the Royal Society’s report After the reboot (2017) – is “not much”.

The report states: “Our literature reviews show that a majority of the research in computing education relates to higher education and the volume of education research in computing is much smaller than in subjects such as physics or mathematics.”

The systematic review of over 2,000 computing education papers internationally from 2005 to 2014 revealed that most of the research was from the USA, with 1,231 papers, while the UK had only produced 128 during this period. Within this review, the majority of school-level research was from the USA with 170 papers, while the UK only produced 24.

What this means is that to some extent we have to look at research elsewhere, and also attempt to apply more general research findings to the teaching of computing. Adopting that approach, I have come across several resources that I hope will prove useful to you in the classroom.

Are you judging others by your own standards?

It is well-established that there is a shortage of qualified computer science teachers in this country (SecEd, 2018). Many teachers have rolled up their sleeves and got on with it, and there are plenty of great resources around to help. But there is a nagging question: if you find something difficult to grasp, will that affect the way you think about students?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer appears to be “yes”. According to a study of a course in learning how to program in Python (Qian et al, 2019), teachers’ confidence of addressing misconceptions may affect their perceptions of students’ misconceptions.

The study found that less obvious misconceptions – because they are harder to spot – are not picked up by the teacher, leading them to believe that they are not very prevalent. Where the teacher lacks knowledge and confidence, they are unlikely to be able to anticipate and prevent students’ misconceptions. The researchers found that increased training led to increased teacher confidence and therefore a better perception of students’ misconceptions. It is not startling that this would be the case, but it is nice to have it confirmed by research.

How should computing be taught?

A review of the literature carried out by Jane Waite in 2017 found that there is no clear answer. Much of the research into teaching approaches has been centred on universities, but there appear to be some lessons we can take:

First, the benefits of learning through physical computing are described by some teachers, but there is not much evidence to support their enthusiasm. What this could mean, of course, is that there has not been enough research to unearth the evidence. Remember: absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

Second, although learning through games is often advocated, there is “limited and mixed evidence of the long-term progression of pupils when being taught computing in this context”.

The report also goes on to say: “Teachers are already employing a range of student engagement approaches, including pair programming, problem-based learning, digital leaders and apprenticeship.

“However, whether teachers or learners are getting the most out of these strategies is not clear, nor even what the optimal arrangement might be for those approaches.”

It would appear that although such practices are widespread, there may be better ways of going about it. Unfortunately, the research does not yet know what those might be.

Further research on pedagogy

In a 2015 paper, Sue Sentance and Andrew Csizmadia explore whether teachers need to change the way they teach in order to deliver the computing curriculum. Their research was qualitative rather than quantitative, analysing statements made by more than 300 teachers.

They concluded that concentrating on a few specific strategies could help teachers to feel more confident in the classroom. They classified the strategies as:

  • Contextualised learning.
  • Computational thinking skills development.
  • Code manipulation.
  • Working collaboratively.
  • Learning away from the computer.

Applying generic principles of instruction

Fortunately, the dearth of definitive research into the correct pedagogy of teaching computing need not deter us from looking at more general research. Rosenshine has done much work in this field, with his Principles of Instruction (2012) being based firmly on the findings of a number of studies. The approaches he recommends include:

  • Start each lesson with a recap of what has been covered already.
  • Introduce new material in baby steps, with students practising each one in turn.
  • Ask students questions and check all of their answers.
  • Provide models.
  • Provide scaffolds.

All of these could be applied in the computing classroom. Taking the last two, modelling includes providing worked examples followed by the students attempting a similar problem-solving exercise on their own. Scaffolding means providing help to the students, and gradually withdrawing it as the students become more proficient.

One kind of scaffold is the teacher working through a problem on the board and thinking aloud as they do so. Another is a checklist. In computing you might provide a checklist to students of how to test a program they have written, but then remove it once they have used it a few times.

Another type of checklist is one that helps students evaluate their work, which in effect models the process the teacher goes through when assessing their efforts.

Although the paper by Rosenshine is both short and general, it is worth close scrutiny. Examples are given of all the strategies, along with their basis in research and suggestions about their application in the classroom.

But do checklists work?

One of Rosenshine ’s principles is the use of scaffolds, including checklists. Interestingly, in a paper published in 2014, Jonathan Ostenson addresses the question of whether checklists, in the specific case of evaluating websites, are not too simplistic for use in a real-world situation.

He concludes that the checklist is not dead yet, but that it needs to be written in such a way that it reflects the complexity of the task in hand. The one he suggests resembles a cross between a spider diagram and a flowchart and is more than the traditional kind of numbered list. In other words, it contains branches going off in different directions, along with questions and prompts, such as “how much information do I need?” – the suggestion given then depends on your answer.

While this work is specific to internet searching, one can imagine the principle being applied to error-checking in a program, say. In other words, if you are thinking of providing your students with checklists, consider making them more rich, in order to better reflect the complexity of the problem they are trying to solve.

Conclusion

Although the computing programme of study is still relatively new, and the subject decidedly challenging for many teachers, the sample of research we have looked at suggests that you do not have to abandon all your tried and tested teaching strategies in order to teach the subject effectively.

Also, the jury is still out on which computing-specific approaches work best, but it seems that a combination of a range of methods rather than reliance on just one or two is the safest option.

Finally, it is clear that professional development for those teaching the subject without a computing background is very advantageous.SecEd

  • Terry Freedman is a freelance ed-tech writer. He publishes the ICT & Computing in Education and Digital Education newsletters at
    www.ictineducation.org. To read Terry’s previous SecEd articles focused on computing and technology, go to
    http://bit.ly/2NAtSDX

Further information & research

  • After the reboot: Computing education in UK schools, Royal Society, November 2017: http://bit.ly/2RfAUNQ
  • Key subjects missing hundreds of teachers as crisis continues, SecEd, December 2018: http://bit.ly/2Ht8NIQ
  • Teachers’ perceptions of student misconceptions in introductory programming, Qian, Hambrusch, Yadav, Gretter & Li, Journal of Educational Computing Research, April 2019: http://bit.ly/2XKQ1kT
  • Pedagogy in teaching computer science in schools: A literature review, Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London, 2017: http://bit.ly/2RhMV5f
  • Teachers’ perspectives on successful strategies for teaching computing in school, Sentance & Csizmadia, A New Culture of Learning: Computing and Next Generations (working conference, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2015): http://bit.ly/2MNBHqD
  • Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know, Barak Rosenshine, American Educator, Spring 2012: http://bit.ly/2ZpbIqW
  • Reconsidering the checklist in teaching internet source evaluation, Ostenson, Libraries and the Academy, Vol 14, No1, January 2014: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1031305


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