Teaching Online Research and Technical Writing

Perhaps the most unusual feature of AP Computer Science Principles in comparison with the typical high school CS course is that it includes writing, and specifically writing backed up by research. Especially if teaching these skills is new to you, it can be challenging to prepare students for the Explore PT, help them meet the research-related learning objectives in the AP CSP framework, and at the same time make research fun.

“We recommend having students do a couple of research + writing assignments before you administer the Explore PT. “

When and Why to Teach Research and Writing

The Explore Performance Task

The Explore Performance Task portion of the AP assessment largely evaluates students’ understanding of Global Impact via written mini-essays, along with creation of a computational artifact presenting the same topic.

In these mini-essays, students answer specific questions about their topic in one to two paragraphs, so they will not need to plan the structure of a whole report. However, the answers are expected to follow the conventions of technical/scientific writing in other ways: logical rhetorical flow, using supporting arguments and examples, clarity of language, and methodical citation of sources.

In addition, having some experience with structuring their technical writing without specific questions will serve students well in college and careers: they will need to be able to present their work. For this reason, several of the TGI contributing curricula include Explore PT prep assignments where students write one-page reports about a computing innovation rather than answering specific PT-style questions.

Whether or not they follow the exact structure of the Explore PT, we recommend having students do a couple of research + writing assignments before you administer the PT. This will get students in practice and help you assess whether they need extra help, for example a separate lesson on technical writing.

Deciding Whether You Need a Separate Lesson

How much explicit guidance you will need to provide students about these conventions will depend on their previous experience with this type of writing. The quickest way to get a sense, of course, is to ask the language arts and social studies teachers in your school about the requirements for the relevant grades. Have the students written research papers before? On what kinds of topics? Have they been taught a specific format for citing sources? What was emphasized? What were the criteria for assessing the writing assignments?

In combination with students’ performance on practice PTs and short write-ups or assignments, such conversations can help you decide how much guidance they will need to be able to perform well on the Explore PT — and to be able to investigate a topic and present their findings generally.

Coming Soon! Teach Global Impact contributors CS Matters are preparing a set of lesson plans for teaching research and writing in CSP.

“The quickest way to get a sense of your students’ previous experience is to ask the language arts and social studies teachers in your school.”

Other Writing Opportunities in CSP

Many of the curricula include written portions in many in-class activities as well as homework assignments. These may include quick report-backs on the students’ findings from an exploratory activity (especially data activities); speculative “take it further” questions (How else might you solve this problem?); or individual responses to the material (How do you want your personal data to be used?). Such written responses can (at least occasionally) be used as an opportunity to practice technical writing style, when you have the bandwidth to review them closely.

More freeform writing also has its place in getting students in the habit of writing about CS; for example, Mobile CSP, CISS, and CS Matters end each class period with a quick written reflection based on a prompt. In addition to just getting the pen moving across the page (so to speak), such reflections can provide a daily feedback mechanism for you about students’ understanding of the material.

The Nitty-Gritty

The following tips and best practices are extracted from the CS Matters “Basics of Research and Technical Writing” lesson in preparation, but can also be used as supplemental or brush-up materials. Handouts and slides will be available soon!

Provide Structure From Start to Finish

For the Explore PT (or for practice PTs), give the students a timeline with targets for (at least) picking a topic, doing the research, creating the artifact, and drafting and finalizing the written portion. You are not allowed to help students with writing or creating the artifact on the actual PT, but you can monitor whether they’re making progress along the timeline.

Main Steps for Writing a Report or Explore PT Responses

  • Brainstorm some topics you’re interested in (in this case, recent computing innovations).
  • Choose a topic.
  • Conduct a little preliminary research: Do a web search and skim a couple of articles to get an idea what people are saying about the topic.
  • Develop a thesis — what is the main idea the report will convey?
  • Make an outline.
    • For the Explore PT (or practice PT), the outline is provided by the writing prompts.
    • For a one-pager or longer report, use the standard format: Introduction, sections for each major aspect of the topic you want to cover, conclusion, bibliography.
  • Conduct online research:
    • Use specialized databases and general-interest sources.
    • Choose a few sources that provide different perspectives or cover different aspects of the topic.
    • Document your sources so you can cite them later.
    • Make sure your notes are clearly labeled as to which source they came from, whether it’s a quote or a paraphrase, or whether the note is your own response or question.
    • Make sure the types of resources you use (including whether they’re online or offline) follow the requirements of the assignment.
  • Organize your notes according to which Explore PT prompt or section of the paper they’re most relevant to.
  • Compare your outline with your notes.
    • If there are major gaps in your notes for a particular section, or big unanswered questions, consider finding additional sources to fill in the gaps.
    • Alternatively, you may need to revise your outline to reflect the main themes you found in your research.
  • Create a checklist of the main points you want to make in each section, or (for the PT) in response to each prompt.
  • Write a first draft of the report or written PT responses, and compile the bibliography. (You may find you need to collect additional information.)
  • Let it settle.
  • Reread and edit for content, grammar, and style. Make sure you included all the important points in your outline.

“You may need to specifically talk about using Wikipedia as a source — in fact, this can be an opportunity to discuss the trade-offs in crowdsourcing and user-generated content!”

For reports or practice PTs, you may want to have the students write a brief abstract or summary once they’ve picked a topic and developed their thesis, to show that the topic is well-defined and that they understand it.

Caveat: Your English or social studies colleagues may have a specific report-writing process or timeline they are teaching students to follow; you may want to consult with them so you can reinforce each other’s teaching.

Prepare Students to Do Online Research: Evaluating Sources

Begin by suggesting some specialized databases to use, and explain how the search features may differ between them (or offer it as a challenge to figure out what they’re doing differently!). It may also be helpful to review the less-used features of general search engines (such as quotation marks).

If your students are finding information using general search engines, they can probably use some practice with identifying whether sources are credible and appropriate (CSP learning objective 7.5.2). You may need to specifically talk about using Wikipedia as a source — in fact, this can be an opportunity to discuss the trade-offs in crowdsourcing and user-generated content!

Students may well be used to getting their information on Wikipedia — and that’s fine for getting an overview of the topic, and to identify potential references in the article’s citations. But although collective quality-control is usually pretty good, the open wiki system does allow for people to insert just plain wrong information in a way that a closed system doesn’t. In addition, even if the article is good now, you have no way of knowing what it will look like if your reader goes to look at it later.

It may be helpful to frame this in terms of how the goals and stakes are different when you’re writing a research paper. If you’re just looking to quickly satisfy your curiosity on a topic or get ideas for where to go for lunch, Wikipedia or Yelp are often the most convenient ways to do that, and that’s fine. But once you go to convey information to other people, especially in writing, you become responsible for its quality, even if you’re just quoting or paraphrasing someone else.

Questions to Ask Yourself About a Possible Source

  • Does the publisher curate and take responsibility for the content?
    • Do the authors have a relationship with the publisher?
    • Is the content supplied by site users, and if so, is it moderated?
    • Is this site just scraping content from other sites?
  • Can you see the bios of the writers? What are their qualifications?
    • Credible qualifications may include subject-matter expertise, e.g., in computer science, or being a professional journalist — preferably both.
  • How long has the website been around? How long has the publisher been around?
    • A long history does not guarantee the source is reputable, but a short history guarantees you can’t tell.
  • What is the primary purpose of the website? To inform, or to generate ad revenue?
    • Of course, reputable publishers do sell ad space! But they generally try to avoid really obtrusive ads, and try to make it clear visually what’s an ad and what’s the site content.
    • Names can be deceiving; many sites with “news” or even “encyclopedia” in the title are actually pretty sketchy.

Questions to Ask About a Source, Continued

  • Is the website primarily a publisher (a single entity responsible for content creation) or a distribution platform (where different entities can publish their content)?
    • Many sites are both, but it’s important to distinguish which “side” an article or video is coming from.
  • Are some of the articles “sponsored content”, or is all the content actually supplied by the publisher?
    • Even many reputable publishers will include sponsored content and native advertising — pseudo-articles written by companies to tout their products or push their brand name. It’s not always well-marked, so you should keep an eye out!
  • When was the article written? How important is it for this topic that the article be up-to-date?
    • High-quality websites usually indicate the date an article was written or last modified.
    • For the Explore PT, you are required to cite at least two sources produced after the end of the last academic year.

“While you should encourage attention to low-level requirements (grammar, punctuation, etc.), it is more important to focus on the content of good writing.”

Give High-Level Science Writing Tips

If students haven’t done science or technical writing before, they may need coaching about how it differs from, say, persuasive essay writing. For the most part, the low-level requirements for good writing are the same across genres (grammar, punctuation, etc.); while you should encourage attention to these points, it’s probably not a good use of CS class time to focus on them. It is more important to focus on the content of good writing, for example, giving examples. (While Explore PT responses should be as grammatical as possible, they are scored mainly on content.)

Following are some tips you may wish to share with your students for producing good technical content.

Writing Tips

Think about your target audience (besides your teacher).

  • What do they already know about the topic?
  • What might they want to know?
  • What hooks can you use to connect what you’re saying to their experiences, or things they already know?
  • Which technical concepts and terms are they likely to be familiar with already, and which ones do you need to explain?

Of course, most often, the only actual audience will be you, or the CSP exam readers! But you can give students an idea of who else they should imagine they are writing for. For example, the guidelines for the Explore PT say that the written responses should be comprehensible to someone who isn’t familiar with the innovation in question.

Writing Tips, Continued

All information should be accurate. If you’re not sure you’re remembering it right, double-check!

Provide concrete examples. For example, if you want to assert that “Social media impacts our privacy because people can figure out where we are,” it will help your reader understand what you mean if you add, “For example, if you have location services turned on for Twitter, it will add your exact GPS coordinates to every tweet.”

Be concise and relevant: avoid repetition, statements of the obvious, and irrelevant tangents. Every sentence should contribute to supporting your main point in some way.

Exceptions: The introduction and conclusion of a report may summarize information provided elsewhere. For a long report, it may also be useful to begin your introduction with one sentence that is common knowledge, like “Search engines play an important role in how people access information online.” This explains why you think the topic is worth writing about, and provides an anchor for the new information you’re about to give. But stop there!

Be clear. Avoid rhetorical flourishes, complicated sentence structures, and ten-dollar words. When you review your first draft, try to read like you’ve never seen this before. Is anything ambiguous or confusing? Would you know what you meant, if you hadn’t been the one who wrote it?

“Consistent citation helps you meet the scientific writing goal of clarity: you don’t want your reader to be confused about who said what.”

Focus on Avoiding Plagiarism

While it may seem obvious to you what plagiarism is and why you shouldn’t do it, the rules can seem quite arbitrary to a student — how can it be plagiarism when they’re not copying word-for-word?

It may help to explicitly compare scientific writing with the more usual situation for your students: When you’re taking a quiz on your textbook reading, you don’t need to cite the textbook after every answer because your teacher already knows that’s where the information came from; that’s the point.

But when you’re writing for any other audience, they have no way of knowing where the ideas came from unless you tell them! And if you don’t tell them the source was someone else, the default assumption will be that the ideas came from you: you’ll be taking credit whether you meant to or not. Consistent citation helps you meet the scientific writing goal of clarity: you don’t want your reader to be confused about who said what.

How Not to Plagiarize

The permissible types of content in scientific writing are:

  • Quotation with citation: Word-for-word copying should have quotation marks around it, and note who the source was directly after the quotation.
  • Paraphrase with citation: If you’re explaining what another author said in your own words, give credit to the source immediately before or after. (If a whole paragraph is about one author’s ideas, you can cite the source once at the end, as long as you think it will be clear to the reader that it applies to the whole paragraph. Otherwise, provide a citation for every sentence that explains someone else’s findings or ideas.)
  • Original work: Explaining your own scientific results, findings, or ideas. Make it clear when you are transitioning between describing others’ work/ideas and describing your own!
  • Common knowledge: If a fact is common knowledge (for example, that smartphones combine features of telephones and computers), you don’t need to cite a source.

What counts as plagiarism? It’s tricky, but warning signs include:

  • More than two words in a row that are identical to the source. (Except proper nouns/names, which count as one word for this purpose.) Bad example: “Social media impacts our privacy” → “Online networking impacts our privacy”
  • Minimally different wordings but the same sentence structure as the original (swapping in synonyms). Bad example: “Twitter will add your exact GPS coordinates to every tweet” → “Twitter appends your precise geolocation to each post”
  • Minimal rearrangements of the same words into a different structure. Bad example: “how people access information online” → “how information is accessed online by people”

In other words, both words and structure need to be different!

Students can apply their analytical and creative skills in “what’s wrong with this paraphrase” or “make this paraphrase less plagiaristic” exercises; links coming soon, but you can create your own from any scientific text.

Special Cases for Citation

Images and other digital content: For the Explore PT, you must provide citations for all digital content included in your computational artifacts, regardless of their copyright or license status. This is a good rule any time you use images, digital content, or code created by anyone else.

But wait, what about public domain? For a public domain image (including the CC0 license), the creator does not require you to attribute/cite the image. However, you may still be required to provide an attribution by the standards of the genre you’re creating in — such as scientific writing — in order to make it clear that you were not the creator of that part. If you don’t specify, the default is to assume you created everything that’s included in your work! So if you don’t provide an attribution, you could accidentally mislead your readers.

Numerical data: Cite sources for numerical data when you refer to it in writing or use it to make a chart. If you performed calculations or transformations, be sure to make it clear what came from the source and what you did. For example: “In Moscow, I have calculated that the ratio of real to fake fur hats is approximately 3:2 (based on raw survey data from Bulgakov 2015).”

“You may need to provide an attribution for a public domain image in order to make it clear you were not the creator.”

Additional Resources

The College Board’s AP CSP Exam Page provides example Explore PT submissions and describes how submissions will be assessed, including the CSP Explore PT Scoring Rubric.

The AP Research framework may give you an idea about what the College Board views as important research and writing skills to target. AP Research is part of the AP Capstone program, which is separate from the content-area APs. It is, of course, much more elaborated than what is expected on the CSP Explore PT; we link to it here just because it provides a useful organization for thinking about the relevant skills.

EasyBib provides a set of general Research Guides and Writing Guides oriented toward high school students, including a (simplified) Plagiarism Flow Chart and a guide to evaluating the credibility of websites.

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