For young and upcoming computer scientists, competitive programming can be a powerful tool to hone essential skills. It helps sharpen problem-solving and analytical thinking abilities and provides the creative opportunity to experiment with algorithms in a safe and structured environment. With that said, introducing competitive programming into the classroom curriculum can open exciting opportunities for students of all ages, from elementary school through high school and beyond. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at what competitive programming is, why educators should consider bringing it into their classrooms and how they can do so successfully.
Competitive Programming and its Benefits for Students
One critical benefit of competitive programming is the development of problem-solving skills. Competitive programming challenges students to solve complex algorithmic and logical problems under pressure. This process helps enhance critical thinking and analytical skills and encourages students to approach problems from multiple angles. These skills are essential not only for programming but also for handling challenging situations. Students participating in competitive programming are exposed to different programming languages, tools, and mathematical methods, which they apply to discover new concepts and techniques. This exposure allows students to identify their strengths and interests in software development and tailor their learning to focus on these areas.
The interactive nature of competitive programming creates an ideal platform for students to develop teamwork and collaboration skills. In a team contest, students can organize themselves into teams during competitions and work together to solve problems. This process fosters a culture of collaboration, mutual respect and helps to build teamwork. Students can learn from each other to improve their coding skills and tackle complex problems requiring the cooperation of different skill sets. The competitions are rigorous and challenging, but successfully solving a difficult problem can increase a student’s confidence, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, and motivation to participate in more challenges (Macgowan, 2015). This self-confidence can extend beyond the competition to other areas of their lives, whether in the classroom, workplace, or personal lives.
We are, of course, leaving out the most obvious – competitive programming can enhance a student’s career in the tech industry. Competitions can exhibit a student’s talent and abilities to a network of potential recruiters and employers such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple, to name a few. Participating in competitions can increase networking opportunities, learn about job positions and companies, and prepare for recruitment. Tech giants such as AWS, IBM, and Huawei frequently sponsor international programming competitions such as ACM’s International Collegiate Programming Contest. The skills learned through competitive programming, including problem-solving, teamwork, and collaboration, are highly valued in today’s workplace and in-demand careers such as software development, data analysis, and project management.
Integrating Competitive Programming in the Classroom
Competitive programming can be a powerful learning tool for students, but finding the right resources can be overwhelming. To ensure that your students get the most out of their competitive programming lessons, it’s essential to choose resources that are challenging yet accessible, engaging, and proven to deliver results.
There are several useful resources to consider, such as textbooks, coding challenges, online forums, and programming contests. Seeking advice from experienced professionals and replicating past contests can also be helpful. When selecting resources, it’s important to consider the age appropriateness of the material and adjust the difficulty level to match the students’ skills.
Younger students can benefit from beginner-based coding platforms such as Snap (https://snap.berkeley.edu/) , CodeCombat (https://codecombat.com/) , and Tynker, as well as game-based projects from the Code Olympiad (https://www.codeolympiad.id/). These tools contain less competition and is geared more towards learning.
For middle or high school students, resources like The USACO Guide (https://usaco.guide/general/intro-cp?lang=cpp) and alGIRLithm (https://algirlithm.org/) are gentle introductions to competitive programming.
For even more advanced students, tools like vjudge (https://vjudge.net/) can be used to curate online judges and create custom contests for practice assessments, icebreaker games, or class exercises. With these resources, teachers can engage student participation, foster collaboration, and add an exciting twist to classroom activities. Watch the following video for a simple workflow on how to create a classroom contest:
Textbooks, coding challenges, online forums, and programming contests are some useful resources to consider. Seek advice from professionals in the field who use technical interviews to find the right resources for your classroom. Replicating past contests from experienced colleagues is also useful. To identify resources for competitive programming in the classroom, it is important to look for age-appropriate resources. For example, middle or high school students may benefit from resources like The USACO guide and alGIRLithm, which are gentle introductions to competitive programming. Additionally, it is important to consider the material’s difficulty level
Conclusions and Recommendations:
As we discussed in an earlier post, gamified activities, when properly used in the classroom, create an engaging and enjoyable learning experience by adding elements such as scoring, rewards, and checkpoints. Adding these features within competitive programming can help students enjoy the process of learning new algorithms, data structures, and problem-solving techniques, making it a rewarding and enjoyable experience. There must also be an element of progress in the contest. A strong sense of progress is one of the most significant benefits of gamification. Game elements such as ranks, badges, or community recognition can be incredibly motivating. In a team contest, competitive programming can help encourage collaboration and networking through various social features, such as leaderboards and chat rooms. Discussing strategies and approaches with other coders can help students get support and feedback on their work.
It’s worth noting that, despite its benefits, competitive programming is not suitable for all students. As the competitive programming community is filled with members who prioritize winning over all else and devote excessive amounts of time to these platforms, such people struggle to balance their personal and professional lives. Furthermore, competitive programming does not reflect real-world programming, as the development workflows and responsibilities involved are very different (mehulmpt, 2020). Instead, it serves as a means to an end. If you aren’t enjoying the ride, there’s a chance you won’t enjoy the outcome, either. Thus, it is not advisable to use competitive programming as an assessment tool for assignments or exams, as this would only add stress and increase feelings of competitiveness among students.
Macgowan, M. J., & Wong, S. E. (2015). Improving Student Confidence in Using Group Work Standards. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(4), 434–440. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731515587557
mehulmpt. (2020, June 27). Mythbusting Competitive Programming – You Don’t Need to Learn It. FreeCodeCamp.org. https://www.freecodecamp.org/news/mythbusting-competitive-programming/
Zhan, Z., He, L., Tong, Y., Liang, X., Guo, S., & Lan, X. (2022). The effectiveness of gamification in programming education: Evidence from a meta-analysis. Computers and Education: Artificial Intelligence, 3, 100096. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.caeai.2022.100096