Make computing competitive: What attracts you to computing? 4/6

This post is the forth of six in a series with ideas and resources on how to make computing lessons engaging and demanding for as many students as possible. Click here for the original post.

Competitive computing
Make computing competitive

Everyone loves to win a prize. Even if the prize is really lame. I love getting cheap and tacky Christmas presents because they’re recycled straight into prizes. The weirder the better. Most of the time though, prizes are unnecessary – students just love the respect and recognition of being appreciated, affirmed for winning – whatever that looks like in practice.

Competitions can be quick or last multiple lessons. You can compete on speed of completion, quality of ideas, depth of understanding, quantity of challenges solved, amount of help offered, level of independence / resilience displayed… pretty much anything can be made competitive.

When someone wins, others inevitably lose out so it’s never a good idea to rely too heavily on competitive projects, but an edge of competition in a lesson can do wonders to boost the pace through a dull or tricky topic.


  • Combine collaborative and competitive activities as a way of getting students to support each other whilst also boosting the pace and enjoyment of a lesson.

e.g. “You’re sat in teams for today’s lesson. There are four ways to win points for your team: 1) Be the first to correctly answer a question. 2) Be the first in the class to complete a challenge I set. 3) Be the first whole team to help each other complete a challenge I set. 4) Be the first whole team to be sat silently with screens off when I ask for your attention.

  • Mix up competitions so that sometimes you reward pace, sometimes quantity, sometimes quality, sometimes independence, sometimes assistance towards others and sometimes depth of understanding.

e.g. “Before we start the new topic today we’re going to see who’s the best at touch-typing in the class. You have 5 minutes enter as many races on as you can. The student with the highest WPM score and the student with the highest accuracy rating will win today’s …”

  • Liven up revision lessons or end of unit tests with interactive quizes. You can also get students to create these quizes for a homework.

e.g. “You have 20 minutes to revise “Binary / Decimal / Hex conversions”. You can use this self test quiz to help. At the end of your 20 minutes we’ll play a Kahoot to choose our binary champion.

Key questions:

What’s motivating my students to work quickly / carefully / creatively? What incentives are there to go beyond the minimum expectations?

Example Activity: Competitive Programming in Scratch

Competitive Programming in Scratch
Competitive Programming in Scratch

Split your class into teams and get them to compete as a team to solve a range of programming challenges. This link outlines how to do this in a way that promotes independence, resilience and collaboration as well as boosting computational thinking skills.


Research and further reading

This paper talks about the dangers of creating an environment which is too competitive in STEM subjects, which can put barriers in the way of some students from learning. Competitive activities shouldn’t only reward those who ‘win’: a good teacher could alternate between rewarding pace, effort, accuracy, attention to detail, creativity and resilience rather than only ever rewarding the highest score.

Despite the dangers of competition mentioned in this paper, other studies (e.g. Porter & Simon, 2013) show competition in classroom activities can be a really healthy way of engaging students and improving outcomes, recruitment and retention.

Tobias, S. They’re not dumb, they’re different: stalking the second tier. Research Corporation, Tucson. 1990
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Making computing accessible for all (3/6): collaborative computing lessons

This post is the third of six in a series with ideas and resources on how to make computing lessons engaging and demanding for as many students as possible. Click here for the original post.

Collaborative Computing

Ideas and resources for collaborative computing lessons

Some people love group work, some people loathe it. Collaboration doesn’t have to mean working in pairs or small groups. Any form of guided interaction between students – online / face to face / written / email – comes with its own challenges but also potential to boost learning and understanding.

The collaboration doesn’t have to be between students either: it’s a great way to involve parents, grand-parents, neighbours or foreign exchange students if you choose your opportunities and platforms for collaboration carefully.

Too much collaboration and a lesson can descend into chaos. A short, focused and well managed collaborative activity though can boost the overall learning and progress well beyond the sum of the individual parts.


  • Set a homework for students to explain a concept to a relative or neighbour who’s rubbish with technology.

e.g. “Find someone who’s never written a program before and teach them the difference between a string and an integer data type. Get them to write down an example of each”

  • Try silent group work where all communication takes place via email / forum / shared folder / whatever.

e.g. “I’ve emailed you a list of partner: you’ll be working with someone who sits on the other side of the class to you. There’s an attachment with a presentation that needs completing. You need to contact your partner by email, agree who’s working on each slide, share the research and complete the presentation.”

  • Set up a questions & answers forum / shared document and ask students to nominate the person who has been most helpful on it at the end of a lesson where it’s used.

e.g. “While we create our games, I’m not going to help anyone until I can see that you’ve written your question in the Q&A forum. If three people reply to say they don’t know how to help you then I’ll come and help. Otherwise, it’s up to you to explore, discover and support each other. Remember to share links to useful websites and tutorials you find.”

Key questions:

Who is too dependent on me as their teacher? Who is to proud or afraid to ask anyone for help?

Example activity: Tech recommendation project

What tech would you recommend?
Advise-a-gadget project

Split the class into groups. Each group must research and recommend the most suitable piece of technology (e.g. tablet / phone / laptop / desktop) for

  • A successful businesswomen looking to work on the commute from York to London
  • A teenage gamer wanting to play the latest games with the best possible graphics
  • An elderly relative who’s not used the Internet before but wants to keep in touch with relatives and read / watch the news

The group will have to present their recommendations and answer questions from the rest of the class. Each person in the group must say something and have contributed something to whatever you choose to display on the projector screen during the presentation.


Research and further reading

This paper recommends a “Trio of best practice” for reducing the number of students who drop out from a computing course (at the University of California). Two of their three recommended strategies involve collaboration between students: peer instruction and pair programming.

Leo Porter and Beth Simon. 2013
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Making computing accessible for all (2/6): Challenging computing lessons

This post is the second of six in a series with ideas and resources on how to make computing lessons engaging and demanding for as many students as possible. Click here for the original post.

Ideas and resources for challenging computing lessons

There’s no point making lessons fun just for the sake of it. Ok, maybe it’s acceptable in the odd lesson just before the Christmas holidays, but I’d rather my students left my lessons feeling like they’ve achieved something than leaving just feeling like they’ve enjoyed themselves.

Fun isn’t a dirty word, but it’s not an end in itself: it’s a natural bi-product of lessons with just the right amount of challenge.

Too much challenge and everyone leaves frustrated and demotivated. Too little and boredom is endemic.

Students don’t all have the same capability, pace, independence and resilience, which means setting the level of challenge is almost impossible to get right for everyone. But lessons / projects with a low floor and high ceiling – that start easy but don’t shy away from difficulty – mean that everyone is going to be suitably challenged at some point along the way.


  • Use templates for code / games rather than expecting students to always start with a blank canvas. Unfinished or deliberately broken code is great as it gives students a starting point to work from.

e.g. “There are 3 syntax errors in this code and one logical error for you to debug”

  • Get used to setting short challenges and puzzles – often at the start of the lesson. Start with something easy and get more difficult as your classes get used to problem solving

e.g. “Today’s learning objectives have been encoded with a caesar cipher: decode them and tell me the key: Avkhf dl’yl nvpun av slhyu ovd av bzl spzaz pu wfaovu”

  • Allow your students to choose different difficulty challenges for lesson / homework. Make sure the complexity of the work increases rather than just the quantity for the most able students.

e.g. “Beginners should make an animation on the micro:bit using built-in images like Image.HAPPY and Image.SAD. Anyone up for a challenge should define your own images to use in your animation

Key questions:

Who’s leaving my lesson feeling like a failure? Who’s leaving my lesson without having learnt anything new?

Example activity: Micro:bit animation

The code above simulates a BBC micro:bit to display an animation consisting of two images. There are three challenges of varying difficulty for students to experiment with lists to create their own animations.


Research and further reading

This paper looks at the challenges facing computing teachers, particularly when it comes to differentiation: stretching the top end whilst not leaving other behind.
Recommendations include:
-Unplugged activities
-Focusing on computational thinking concepts rather than syntax
-Scaffolding programming activities rather than starting from an empty file

Sentance, S. & Csizmadia, A. Educ Inf Technol (2017)
Continue ReadingMaking computing accessible for all (2/6): Challenging computing lessons