Differentiated Instruction in AP Computer Science


by Richard White


We’ve just completed the first quarter of the school year, and I’m loving (and for the moment surviving) the opportunity to teach a new course: AP Computer Science.

I actually began my teaching career in 1986 as the instructor of a computer programming class, first using BASIC, and then Pascal, on IBM XTs–the original beige PC. This was well before you crazy kids had access to the InterWebs, but we loved our computing machines just the same.

So it’s funny, and fun, to be teaching Computer Science again, and it’s exciting to be participating in that daily experiment we call “teaching,” in which the instructor hypothesizes about what might be an effective tool or strategy for working with a class, tries it out, and then goes home to clean up the mess of those experiments that–wonderfully or tragically–failed.

I’m finding out that my students this year have a wider range of abilities than I’m used to seeing in the AP Physics class I teach. The possible reasons for that wide range don’t really matter; I’m there to teach the students who are in the class, meet them all wherever they are, and see what I can do to help guide them in learning the subject.

How do you actually do that, though? How, practically, do I proved instruction and lessons for a classroom full of students, some of whom are going home and programming their own Blackjack programs just for fun, while others are having profound difficulties applying concepts that they appeared to have understood well just the day before?

The act of providing these varying levels of support in a single class has earned the buzzphrase differentiated instruction, and here’s what I’ve developed for a typical lesson:

  1. a whiteboard-based overview
  2. whiteboard based pseudocode
  3. freestyle coding for advanced students
  4. template-based support for intermediate students
  5. solution-based support for students who need more support

Wanna see it in action? Here’s a 7-minute documentary-style rundown, complete with footage of the kids hard at work.

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