Block-based programming applications like Scratch and ScratchJr provide millions of children with an introduction to programming; they are a fun and accessible way for beginners to explore programming concepts and start making with code. ScratchJr, in particular, is designed specifically for children between the ages of 5 and 7, enabling them to create their own interactive stories and games. So it’s no surprise that they are popular tools for primary-level (K–5) computing teachers and learners. But how can teachers assess coding projects built in ScratchJr, where the possibilities are many and children are invited to follow their imagination?
In the latest seminar of our series on computing education for primary-aged children, attendees heard about two research studies that explore the use of ScratchJr in K–2 education. The speaker, Apittha (Aim) Unahalekhala, is a graduate researcher at the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University. The two studies looked at assessing young children’s ScratchJr coding projects and understanding how they create projects. Both of the studies were part of the Coding as Another Language project, which sees computer science as a new literacy for the 21st century, and is developing a literacy-based coding curriculum for K–2.
How to evaluate children’s ScratchJr projects
ScratchJr offers children 28 blocks to choose from when creating a coding project. Some of these are simple, such as blocks that determine the look of a character or setting, while others are more complex, such as messaging blocks and loops. Children can combine the blocks in many different ways to create projects of different levels of complexity.
At the start of her presentation, Aim described a rubric that she and her colleagues at DevTech have developed to assess three key aspects of a ScratchJr coding project. These aspects are coding concepts, project design, and purposefulness.
- Coding concepts in ScratchJr are sequencing, repeats, events, parallelism, coordination, and the number parameter
- Project design includes elaboration (number of settings and characters, use of speech bubbles) and originality (character and background customisation, animated looks, sounds)
The rubric lets educators or researchers:
- Assess learners’ ability to use their coding knowledge to create purposeful and creative ScratchJr projects
- Identify the level of mastery of each of the three key aspects demonstrated within the project
- Identify where learners might need more guidance and support
As part of the study, Aim and her colleagues collected coding projects from two schools at the start, middle, and end of a curriculum unit. They used the rubric to evaluate the coding projects and found that project scores increased over the course of the unit.
They also found that, overall, the scores for the project design elements were higher than those for coding concepts: many learners enjoyed spending lots of time designing their characters and settings, but made less use of other features. However, the two scores were correlated, meaning that learners who devoted a lot of time to the design of their project also got higher scores on coding concepts.
The rubric is a useful tool for any teachers using ScratchJr with their students. If you want to try it in your classroom, the validated rubric is free to download from the DevTech research group’s website.
How do young children create a project?
The rubric assesses the output created by a learner using ScratchJr. But learning is a process, not just an end outcome, and the final project might not always be an accurate reflection of a child’s understanding.
By understanding more about how young children create coding projects, we can improve teaching and curriculum design for early childhood computing education.
In the second study Aim presented, she set out to explore this question. She conducted a qualitative observation of children as they created coding projects at different stages of a curriculum unit, and used Google Analytics data to conduct a quantitative analysis of the steps the children took.
Her findings highlighted the importance of encouraging young learners to explore the full variety of blocks available, both by guiding them in how to find and use different blocks, and by giving them the time and tools they need to explore on their own.
She also found that different teaching strategies are needed at different stages of the curriculum unit to support learners. This helps them to develop their understanding of both basic and advanced blocks, and to explore, customise, and iterate their projects.
- Encourage free play to self-discover different functions, especially basic blocks
- Set plans on how long children will need on customising vs coding
- More guidance on the advanced blocks, then let children explore
- Provide multiple sessions to work
- Promote iteration by encouraging children to keep improving code and adding details
You can watch Aim’s full presentation here:
You can also access the seminar slides here.
Join our next seminar on primary computing education
At our next seminar, we welcome Aman Yadav (Michigan State University), who will present research on computational thinking in primary school. The session will take place online on Tuesday 7 November at 17:00 UK time. Don’t miss out and sign up now:
To find out more about connecting research to practice for primary computing education, you can find the rest of our upcoming monthly seminars on primary (K–5) teaching and learning and watch the recordings of previous seminars in this series.