Mar 15, 2021

Integrating Formative Assessment Practices to Improve Computer Science Teaching

Satabdi Basu
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Additional Contributors to this blog: Laura Kassner, Daisy Rutstein, Carol Tate, and Kori Hamilton-Biagas

Learning, teaching, and assessing computer science can be challenging, InformCS is here to help.

What is InformCS? Integrating Formative Assessment practices into Computer Science (InformCS), a National Comprehensive Center project, provides computer science teachers with resources and supports to improve teaching practices by using formative assessment practices aligned to computer science concepts and standards.  

Why formative assessment?

Research tells us that developing formative assessment literacy can help:

  • address gaps and deepen teachers’ content knowledge
  • lead to more effectively instructional delivery
  • allow for better evaluation of student understandings and challenges, and
  • identify strategies for addressing those challenges – all while providing opportunities for student growth.

Growth of computer science in K-12 education

Computer Science education has expanded rapidly in the K-12 space, providing incredible hands-on learning opportunities for students, and creating a need for computer science teachers. Districts often handle this increased need by assigning teachers from other disciplines to teach computer science or integrate computer science with other disciplines. As a result, these newly-minted computer science teachers often enter the classroom with minimal preparation, no colleagues with whom to collaborate and plan, and no district-level support.  As of 2020, 37 states have content standards in computer science but little support for how to teach to those standards.

How InformCS addresses challenges

We outline four challenges related to the rapid expansion of computer science in the K-12 sphere, and how InformCS seeks to address them.

Teaching computer science is particularly challenging because it requires teachers to learn computer science content and pedagogy, while also learning to use new technology. Although technology offers exciting possibilities, putting an educator in a room with fancy technology isn’t enough. The InformCS approach deepens teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge around standards-aligned formative assessments.

In addition to insufficient subject matter knowledge and struggling to assess student work, K-12 computer science teachers report challenges with assessing student progress and meeting individual student needs.  These gaps translate into difficulty understanding student challenges and why students might be struggling with something – as well as inadequate ability to help when students are stuck, without just giving away the correct solution. When teachers apply the InformCS approach to formative assessment, they can provide students with scaffolded support, targeted to specific gaps in their understanding.

Typical professional development for computer science teachers consists of a short workshop provided by curriculum developers or vendors. This professional development is not always coordinated with the school district or part of an articulated plan, and leaves teachers ready to deliver instruction but underprepared to monitor and support student learning. InformCS provides a framework to support teachers in adjusting their instruction based on information derived from well-designed and appropriately selected formative assessments.

Typically, computer science teachers have to be resourceful; they often teach themselves and create or find learning activities, but these activities don’t always align with deeper conceptual learning. The InformCS approach can empower teachers and support greater content mastery for students.