Discovering students’ underlying computational skills

Brain node abstract diagram

The exact definition of Computational Thinking is hotly debated. However, it is more widely accepted that some kind of computational problem solving skills are important to succeed in Computing. Researchers from three universities in Madrid have been working for some time on a Computational Thinking test to assess this ability. Román-Gonzáleza, Pérez-Gonzáleza, Moreno-León and Robles have found that their test can identify different levels of computational talent, even before learning any programming.

Originally published in Issue 6 of Hello World: The computing and digital making magazine for educators. Available free at (Shared under Creative Commons CC BY NC SA).

In their latest paper they have demonstrated that this test is able to detect students that are ‘computationally talented’ before they have any programming experience. This could allow talented students to be identified and appropriately challenged in the classroom. It also raises the possibility of identifying the computational talent level of all students and using this to put in place the teaching needed for all to succeed.

The Computational Thinking test (CTt) is a 45 minute, multiple choice quiz. Students either choose appropriate instructions to navigate a PacMan out of a maze, or answer a question about a piece of block based code. Computational concepts based on the CSTA Computer Science Standards are gradually introduced. For this project they also looked at the academic grades students achieved in school, and learning analytics about their activity using and Khan Academy.

Students took the CTt before starting learning programming, and their results for this test were found to predict their grades and their success in the online programming courses. There were large differences in the computational ability of students even before they learn to code. It might be logical to assume that students would start learning programming on a relatively level playing field. This research suggests that is not the case. Different students are likely to start with different capacities in terms of the underlying thinking skills that programming builds on. It is worth educators exploring these underlying skills to support the success of all students, as it seems likely that even from the start different students will need different levels of support.

The CTt is still the subject of research, but this work suggests that there are underlying skills that computing educators should consider when designing the learning for their students.

You can read more about this research here.

Photo Credit: albyantoniazzi Flickr via Compfight cc

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