Exploratory Research: How Can We Make Computer Science More Accessible for Students Who Learn Differently?

Guest blog post by Outlier Research & Evaluation, UChicago STEM Education’s Sarah Wille – PI of the CSP and Students with Learning Differences study

As computing learning opportunities expand across the country, we must ask the practical question: How do we work toward a more accessible computer science (CS) for students with specific learning disabilities and/or attention deficit disorders? Students with these types of learning-based differences are often lost in conversations about diversifying CS. In an NSF-supported study I lead with colleagues at Outlier Research & Evaluation and the Wolcott School, we refer to these students as students with learning differences or students who learn differently. Our work is exploring ways to make CS – and the new AP Computer Science Principles (CSP) course specifically – more accessible for these particular learners.

How many students have a learning disability or an attention deficit disorder?: A 2014 publication from the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) entitled “The State of Learning Disabilities,” reports there are 2.4 million public school students in the U.S. identified with a specific learning disability (such as in reading, written expression, math, or language) and 6.4 million children diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder (like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, more commonly known as ADHD). This report indicated that as many as one-third of the 2.4 million students diagnosed with a specific learning disability also have a related attention deficit disorder.

An important take away here is that many of these learners will be, and already are enrolled in formal and informal computer science learning opportunities. These students can be successful in learning CS if provided with appropriate instruction and support to meet their learning needs.

Exploring Ways to Make CS More Accessible for Students Who Learn Differently: One current project I lead with other education researchers and expert practitioners is exploring ways to make the Computer Science Principles (CSP) course more accessible for students with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders. Our team is developing and testing strategies that can be employed when certain types of activities occur in CSP, and in any CS class lessons, that may pose challenges for these particular learners.

In the first phase of our study, we worked with two versions of CSP curricula, in two separate Wolcott classrooms: Beauty and Joy of Computing (BJC) and’s version of CSP. While the Wolcott CS teacher selected the CSP curriculum to use in her AP CSP class in this current school year, our team is working to develop general principles and research-informed guidance that will be helpful to all CSP developers and teachers (and hopefully others in the CS education community, too) and, we suspect, will also benefit students without formally identified learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

Improving Accessibility by Adjusting Lessons: Broadly speaking, our project employs two ways to improve accessibility of CSP lessons: First, through whole-class lesson adjustments (we refer to these as “adaptations”) and second, through individual, student-based adjustments (“accommodations”). An early step in our study was to specifically discuss the range of disability-based learning differences that may exist in any general population of learners and the adjustments commonly made for them across disciplines. We define adaptations as adjustments a teacher makes to a lesson that have the potential to benefit all learners in the class (that is, the typical range of learners in any classroom), and particularly those with specific learning differences. Teachers already familiar with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) will notice that this “whole-class” lesson adaptation approach is similar to elements of UDL, as many of our adjustments are focused on similar principles. Different, however, is our particular focus on students’ needs specific to their learning-based disorders. Lesson accommodations, on the other hand, are explicit approaches teachers can offer students at various points in the lessons likely to benefit particular individuals or groups of learners in the class; these are offered on an individual basis (i.e., they are offered, but not required for any students) according to the particular learning needs of students beyond what the whole-class adaptations may provide. It is essential to be clear that adaptations and accommodations are not “modifications” to lessons; that is, they do not change the content or rigor of a CSP lesson, nor do they simplify materials or change grading and testing measures. Rather, they are recommendations for lesson adjustments that provide students with a range of ways to access content, and to enable them to demonstrate understanding in different ways. Adjustments of either type can be made to various aspects of a lesson including the mode of presentation of information, options for student responses, time allotted for student work, physical settings for lesson activities/work, and modes of social interaction.

Strategies to Address Potential Barriers in CS Lessons: Learning Specialist Suggestions: At this point in the project, our team learning specialists have compiled a list of the general strategies we use in our project in activities that are common across CSP as well as other CS classes. For example, many CS classrooms include a mix of activities (such as whole class discussions, partner or small group work, or reading and writing in general activities and assessments) that can pose challenges for students with learning differences (and particularly those with challenges related to language, reading, attention, and written expression). Our preliminary research is finding that when some alternate instructional approaches are used during these activities, students who learn differently because of a learning or attention disorder are more able to access the CS curriculum and participate in lesson activities. Here are a few sample instructional strategies.

Strategies to Support CS Learning: Student Suggestions: Our high school student research team members have also provided us with useful information about the practices happening in the CSP class that they find particularly helpful to their learning of CS. Here are a few examples of general educator instructional practices that students have identified over the last year as particularly helpful learning supports:

  • Creating/maintaining an accessible glossary with relevant new words for each lesson
  • Reading instructions together as a class; providing explicit instruction; and repeating key instructions and concepts, offering all in multiple formats
  • Illustrating examples on the board to show “how things work” and documenting/curating those examples to reference later
  • Facilitating whole-class note taking and highlighting key information/words/phrases
  • Developing a classroom system for students to organize their course materials for later reference (e.g., a binder or some online system)
  • Helping students identify the most critical information in activities (vs. extra “noise”)
  • Offering more time to process and respond to information
  • Providing feedback on work
  • Identifying and offering up quiet spaces for work

Broadening Our Idea of CS For All: There are currently few evidence-based studies in CS education that target the needs of students specific to learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and we are working to help fill this gap. Our CSP study team will be sharing findings as our research progresses, so keep an eye out for additional information from this work in the next year. There are simply too many students who learn differently (diagnosed or undiagnosed) that will be denied opportunities unless we develop and share strategies for addressing their learning needs in CS courses.

The CSP and Students with Learning Differences study is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number CNS- 1542963