Students' advice for new CS teachers

As our computer science (CS) education community works to bring more teachers into K-12 CS, and support their development, we can look to students to understand what it is that they value in a CS teacher. What do students think teachers need to know about teaching CS? What teaching qualities are most important to them? Students are, after all, the ones we intend for our collective CS education efforts to benefit; their voices and thoughts should not be overlooked.

As part of our BASICS Study, we conducted focus groups with introductory CS students (N=46) at eight schools in Chicago, all using the Exploring Computer Science curriculum. During these Spring 2015 focus groups, we asked students to write down up to five pieces of advice they would give to a teacher about to teach introductory CS for the first time. Our sample included 121 usable pieces of advice.

Although the responses shared by students touched on a number of different issues, we found several consistent themes.

People talking

Just under half (44%) of students gave advice related to general classroom teaching and learning practices, such as the basic mechanical aspects or skills of teaching that apply to teaching any subject area. For example, students called out the importance of providing clear and detailed instructions, practicing good classroom management, varying the teaching and learning strategies used, and starting with the content basics and reviewing along the way.

Go step by step

Give directions clearly

Review a lot because the stuff can get confusing

Try to get everybody paying attention

Teach with a positive attitude

Make sure your students feel comfortable enough in the classroom to ask you any questions they might have

Have patience

Nearly another quarter (21%) of students focused on the need for teacher support for students in learning, noting specifically the importance of providing help, being patient with students as they learn, and creating a positive and supportive classroom environment.

Students also advised that introductory CS teachers should get to know the students in their class (19%), as these relationships, in their view, allow teachers to more fully understand the needs of students and to pace the course appropriately for each unique group of students.

Check up on your students

Address any problems that students are having with the work

Everyone goes at a different pace

Challenge your students

Make it fun for the student

Relate to real world experiences

Keep everything relevant

Motivating students to learn, through making the class fun and engaging, relevant to students’ lives, and challenging, was also highlighted in students’ advice to new CS teachers (16%).

These last three categories of student advice may also be viewed as falling under one larger theme of positive student-teacher relations. They all touch on the idea that in order to successfully teach introductory CS—or really, any course—building strong relationships with students is imperative. When these relationships are established, students feel that their needs can be better understood and met, the content can be better contextualized to their lives, and they feel more supported in the classroom.

It is interesting to note that what students emphasized was not about strong CS content expertise, but rather a desire for what might be considered a good teacher in any context. Overall, these student messages bode well for the many teachers crossing subject areas to begin teaching K-12 CS across the U.S.

CS content

Within the categories described above, some students did provide advice that referenced CS content (10% of the total student advice; N=12). These responses primarily advised teachers to be ready to clearly describe or demonstrate aspects of computer science to their students (e.g., “when talking to students about programming, you can reference modern technology;” “explain codes and algorithms in different ways because at first it’s hard to understand;” “make sure students are aware of the stereotypes of computer science”). This by default requires basic understanding of the course content, yet none of the student responses specified a desire for a teacher with a strong CS background, experience working in industry, or someone who would immediately have the answer to any CS question – student advice was overwhelmingly about good teaching and learning practices that are ideally applied in any classroom.

These findings have implications that are twofold: first, for prospective and in-training CS teachers, these student voices may help to alleviate the perception among those not already experienced in CS that they must be content experts to be effective. Second, knowing what students value in their introductory CS teachers can be useful for school leaders considering who within their current school staff could be trained to transition to teaching CS.