The New & Improved NCSS Challenge

Christie McMonigal
Jul 23 · 6 min read
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We are always striving to have the NCSS (National Computer Science School) Challenge provide the best possible competition and learning experience for our teachers and students. We are constantly working to improve our features and content based on feedback from our awesome teachers.

I spoke to our Content Manager, Jane Abrams, about some of the amazing features in the NCSS Challenge this year and how they help to improve learning and engagement for everyone involved:

Live Classroom View

Live Classroom lets teachers track student progress live

This year, we’ve made it easier for teachers to see exactly what their students are working on in real time with a new Live Classroom feature.

Live Classroom gives you a snapshot of your students’ current and recent activity, including what courses they are working in, what slide or problem they are on, and indicators of where they might be struggling.

You can find more details about Live Classroom in our FAQ.

Messaging students remotely

One of the most popular features of the NCSS Challenge is the live online support for students from our expert tutors. We’ve now extended access to our online tutoring interface to teachers, so that they can assist their students directly — even when teaching remotely!

Student messaging works seamlessly with Live Classroom. If it looks like your student is struggling, you can access their work directly from Live Classroom and leave a message to help get them unstuck.

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Teacher can message students and see their work and previous submissions.

Read our FAQ for more information on messaging students remotely.

Paired Problems.

In the Newbies and Beginners streams each new concept is now accompanied by paired problems — two problems both testing the same new concept. This is designed to better reinforce those concepts, but also to give teachers more flexibility in the classroom.

We know that many teachers find it useful to work through problems with their students in class. With paired problems, teachers can work through the first problem with the class, or have students work together in groups, discussing the new concepts and addressing misconceptions. Students can then attempt the second problem independently.

To make space for problem pairs, we’ve restructured both streams to focus more on coverage of key concepts, especially those required by the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies.

A new points deadline.

The NCSS Challenge runs for five weeks, with a new set of problems introduced each week. In previous years, we released solutions at the end of each week, after which points were no longer available.

This worked well as a motivator for some students, but for many it had the opposite effect! The feedback we were getting was that many students are highly motivated by the points, which meant they lost motivation to continue when points were no longer available. Often, students would attempt to skip ahead to the next week of content, without mastering the assumed knowledge from the week before.

Recently, we changed this so that only teachers are able to see problem solutions, and we allowed students to earn points for any question completed right up until the end of the competition.

Now, students have the freedom to work at their own pace, still earn completion points, and continue making progress through the challenge without losing motivation.

In the 2019 survey, 70% of teachers said they preferred this new points deadline.

We also like that this has created a subtle shift where the expectation is not that students would necessarily solve every problem. Students can work at their own pace, even if it means they are still working on “Week 1” content in “Week 3” — they are still earning points, making progress, and learning, and they receive a certificate at the end of the competition to reflect that.

Narration and interactive slides.

The NCSS Challenge is a unique competition open to students of all levels of experience, because we teach as we go! Each stream is structured as a series of notes with learning material, directly followed by programming problems where students are challenged to put new concepts into practice.

However, a common piece of feedback we receive from teachers is that students have varied success ‘reading to learn’. For some students, the literacy demands are too high. Others just prefer to skip over the notes and jump straight to the problems — not always successfully!

Recently, we’ve been exploring ways to encourage students to engage more with the notes before diving into the problems.

In the Newbies stream, all notes and problems are now narrated so that students can listen instead of reading.

In the Newbies, Beginners, and — this year, due to popular demand — Intermediate streams, we’ve also introduced interactive slides.

Previously, our content slides included code examples that students could run and edit, if they chose. Our new interactive slides are structured as a series of step-by-step instructions which direct students to constantly run and edit the code examples, make predictions, and solve highly-scaffolded mini problems within the slides themselves. Slides are ticked off when all the steps are solved, and students and teachers can see a visual indicator of which slides have been completed.

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Interactive slides in action

In the 2019 survey, 59% of teachers named the step-by-step instructions in slides and problems as one of the best features of the Challenge, and 75% said the steps encouraged students to complete the slides.

Interactive steps or hints in problems.

One of the insights we’ve gained from years of tutoring students in the NCSS Challenge is that many students struggle with simply knowing where to start!

As such, we’ve recently been exploring ways to provide more scaffolding in problems for those students who need it.

In the Newbies and Beginners streams, we’ve used our interactive steps to provide step-by-step instructions that give students clues about what to tackle first, and provide feedback when they’re ready to move on to the next step.

This year, we wanted to also add some scaffolding to the Intermediate stream problems, but, at this level, we also want students to engage in more of the problem-solving themselves.

In the Intermediate stream we’re introducing optional interactive hints. These are hidden by default, but students can choose to view them if they get stuck! Hints aren’t as specific as the step-by-step instructions we’ve provided in other streams, but they’ll give students clues about what they need to include in their solution to solve the problem.

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Interactive hints in action!

We’re excited to see how our new hints feature is received by teachers and students this year!

Continued Content Updates

We are constantly tweaking and updating our Challenge content in response to changing curriculums, different student profiles, teacher and student feedback, and new insights into what is and isn’t working in each stream.

In particular, we’ve recently been working to align the Challenge streams with the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies.

In 2018, the Newbies stream was refreshed to align with the AC:DT for students in years 5 and 6, in response to growing demand from primary schools.

In 2019, we refreshed the Beginners stream to align with the curriculum for students in years 7 and 8. We also introduced a Blockly (drag-and-drop blocks) version of this stream to accompany the Python (text programming) version, to support more differentiated learning needs at this level.

This year, the Intermediate stream is getting a content overhaul! The new Intermediate stream follows on seamlessly from Beginners, and includes new content aligned with the AC:DT for students in years 9 and 10.

I hope you enjoyed reading about the key features of the NCSS Challenge. The July 2020 Challenge starts on Monday 27th July at 8am AEST. Visit groklearning.com/challenge for more information.

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