AP Computer Science A vs. AP Computer Science Principles: Which Should You Take

MARCH 2, 2017, 9:39 AM

AP Computer Science A vs. CS Principles

General Description

If you’re looking for a way to challenge yourself academically, enrolling in AP classes is a great place to start. Not only can you gain college credit at a dramatically reduced price, you can also take your comprehension and analysis skills to the test. Naturally, as you approach high school graduation, you’ll begin to mull over what your next steps in life will be—towards a particular vocation or towards higher education. Enrolling in AP courses lets you discover inner passions that can lead to these future decisions.

Students that are keen on taking AP courses will inevitably go through the back-and-forth process of selecting the right class. In particular the AP CollegeBoard offers two courses aimed at honing computer skills: AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles. But, you may still be confused about how these classes differ. Ultimately, you’re wondering: Which course should I take?

Both classes offer students the chance to develop computing skills while also calling on creativity, problem solving, and data examination.

Before narrowing down the decision, it’s important students keep an open mind as they continue to discover personal passions and areas of academic strength. Insight about exam structure, class content, and related future pursuits can help students come to terms with the course that will best suit their needs, AP Computer Science A versus AP Computer Science Principles.

Overview of Each Exam

Each AP exam is not only about information recall, but also an assessment of close analysis and interpretation. When you’re well-informed about each course’s test format, you’ll improve your chances of scoring high on the final exam, and come one step closer to earning college credit.

The AP Computer Science exam lasts a total of 3 hours. Exam content refers to AP Java subscript. Accordingly, all test questions should be answered in the Java format. The test is broken down into two sections. In Section I, students are given 1 hour and 30 minutes to respond to 40 multiple-choice questions. Examples of questions include data structures, programming fundamentals, object-oriented programming, data structures, logic, algorithms/problem solving, software engineering, and recursion. This portion of the exam accounts for 50% of the overall score.

Section II of the AP Computer Science exam centers on four Free Response questions, which students are given 1 hour and 30 minutes to answer. In a short-answer format, students must respond using Java programming language. In addition, you will solve problems using in-depth reasoning. Section II of the exam will account for 50% of the overall exam score.

For example, students may be asked to identify best object-oriented program design needed at a car dealership scenario, or for the program which best suits a flight company tracking incoming and outgoing flights each day. In this way, students will put their skills to the test in real-life situations.

On the other hand, the AP Computer Science Principles’ final score is based on an official exam grade as well as through-course assessments. The AP Computer Science Principles exam lasts a total of 2 hours. During the exam, students are to answer 74 multiple-choice questions in 120 minutes. Some questions ask students to choose only one correct answer, while others may require multiple selections within a single question. The exam accounts for 60% of the overall assessment score.

Students must also carry out two through-course performance tasks, worth the remaining 40% of the overall assessment score. In the first task, students are tested on the Impact of Computing Innovations. Students are given 8 hours of class time to complete this portion of the assessment, which is awarded 16% of the assessment score.

Secondly, students conduct a task referred to as the Application to Ideas. Students are given 12 classroom hours to complete this section. It is worth 24% of the assessment score.

For example, in the exam portion of the assessment, students may be asked to assess the result of running a code segment given two variables. Alternatively, during the performance task portion, students may be asked to develop computer programs and explain aspects which allow the program to function.

Key Differences in the Curricula of Each Course

AP Computer Science A versus AP Computer Science Principles are considered complimentary courses. That is to say, neither is a prerequisite for the other. Students are encouraged to take a close look at the curriculum and goal sets of each to better determine which course they should take.

AP Computer Science A hones your skills in developing Java script programming. Over the duration of the course, you will develop learning skills that include problem solving, design strategies and methodologies, data organization, data processing, examination of potential solutions, and understanding of social and ethical computing practices. AP Computer Science A is considered compatible with CS1 courses.

The course is broken down into lab activity and computer language practice. You’ll be given no less than 20 hours of hands-on lab activity in which your main goal will be problem solving: individually or in groups. Major objectives include designing problem solutions, expressing solutions succinctly, testing solutions, and weighing possible solutions.

You’ll also be developing Java script skills during the computer language portion of the course, as all problem solutions must be written in Java. However, AP Computer Science A is an introductory course. For this reason, lessons in Java should also be considered an introduction, but not an exhaustive course as it would be too much to include in a single class.

Overarching goals of this course include implementing and analyzing potential problem solutions, utilizing common algorithms, using data structures and algorithms to carry out new problems, writing out clear solutions, testing and debugging solutions given Java script programming, reading and understanding programming and the development process, and understanding social implications of computing.

On the other hand, AP Computer Science Principles equips you with the discipline necessary to analyze and draw conclusions about large sets of data. The course will call on you to be creative in problem solving computing problems. In addition, you must work collaboratively to design, analyze, and experiment with potential design concepts in groups. Big picture, you’ll also start to consider the ethical and social ramifications of computing.

AP Computer Science Principles, versus AP Computer Science A, does not specify a computing language. Each teacher selects a language for the class to be conducted in.

Major studies within the AP Computer Science Principles course include creativity, abstraction, data and information, algorithms, programming, internet, and global impact. Additionally, as AP computing students, you’ll focus on drawing connections between concepts, analyzing problems and artifacts, abstracting, creating computational artifacts, communicating the impact of technology and computation, and collaborating as a group to come to collective conclusions.

Pros and Cons for Taking Each Course

When you glance at both curricula, you’ll notice there’s overlap in exam format and course content. Both classes will develop your ability to analyze and problem solve effectively. The major difference between AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A lays in the spectrum of the material covered.

AP Computer Science A offers a more narrowly focused course. Students with a predisposition or particular interest in pursuing Java script computing should consider enrolling in this course. Given its compatibility with CS1 courses at many American colleges, students can begin to look at the course as an avenue for future study.

Before taking the course, you should have a basic foundation of English and algebra. You should also have some familiarity with functions and the concepts found in the uses of function notation. Lastly, basic mathematical understanding is also a key to success in this type of course.

Contrarily, AP Computer Science Principles is a broadened look at computing practices. Since language is not specified, you’ll have the advantage of being exposed to one or more computing languages. Especially in the case that you’ve not yet narrowed down where future computing interests are, AP Computer Science Principles offers a comprehensive sampling.

It’s strongly suggested that you’ve already taken a high school algebra course prior to enrolling in AP Computer Science Principles, with a special emphasis on functions and problem solving strategies that may require more than one approach. It’s important students have exposure to the Cartesian (x, y) coordinate system as well as a foundation in mathematics before starting the course.

What Sort of Student May Excel in Each Course

A careful review of the exam and course content can help students narrow down which course path is best to take. While academic skills in math, science, and English are important in each of these courses, time commitment is also an important factor. Whether students choose a computing overview with AP Computer Science Principles, or a narrowed intensive with AP Computer Science A, each requires students to carve out the time in their schedule to master the key concepts.

Upon course selection, some students may already have college plans in place, and should consult which exam scores are accepted. In the case that students don’t yet have a narrowed vision for a future in computing, AP Computer Science Principles may be the best move.

You are always encouraged to consult with former teachers of related courses in science and mathematics. While high marks in one of these previous courses is not the end all and be all when determining whether or not to enroll in an AP course, it does provide some important insight on your natural abilities, and the effort that will be required to perform well on future exams.

How to Decide which Course to Take

Students who are stuck between AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles and aren’t sure which to take should look to their future academic and career goals. For both computing courses, the AP CollegeBoard has included a series of education and career fields related to each. While some pathways may be obvious, other related career paths may surprise students and consequentially spark an unforeseen interest.

For example, students who are considering enrolling in AP Computer Science A may consider pursuing future studies in aerospace engineering, botany, computer graphics, design and visual communications, exercise science, linguistics, molecular biology, statistics, and website design.

Related career avenues for students in AP Computer Science A include professions like architects, chemical engineers, database administrators, forensic scientists, meteorologists, pharmacists, software developers and website designers.

Conversely, AP Computer Science Principles students may enjoy studies in applied physics, civil engineering, computer graphics, electronics technology, library and information science, mathematics, neuroscience, and nuclear engineering.

Similar lines of professional work may include career as aircraft pilots, biomedical engineers, clinical laboratory technologists, electronics technicians, financial analysts, industrial engineers, market and survey researchers, public accountants, sales engineers, and technical writers.

With an increased awareness of future pursuits, you’ll not only have an easier time deciding which course is right for you, but you’ll also be more motivated to go the extra mile in classroom activities and exam preparation.

What Resources to Turn to for Preparing for these Exams

You should make a point of studying consistently throughout the course duration. Regular review is necessary in order to cement a foundation and clear up any confusion far in advance of testing day.

Thankfully, you have AP test preparation resources at your fingerprints, both online and in print. One such resource is called Albert, an online AP study prep platform which tests you on pertinent information across a myriad of AP courses, in a manner similar to the actual exam.

In particular, you will find extensive study material related to AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles. After just a quick look, students can target their areas of weakness as areas of future focus.

Take Away

It’s no secret that students face a tough decision when selecting an AP course. While a decision between AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A may initially seem overwhelming, you’ll quickly be put at ease when you realize you’re in control of the path you take. More so, no matter the course you choose, enrolling in an AP course will have positive side effects many years out.

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