What Are AP Computer Science Courses? 

Last Updated: June 12, 2023 10:22 am
What Are AP Computer Science Courses? 

Considering enrolling in an Advanced Placement (AP) computer science course? Or are you a teacher considering a new AP CS program? In this article, you can learn more about the College Board’s two computer science courses, explore key AP terminology, and find useful links to College Board resources, as well as Tynker’s AP coursework. Let’s dive in! 

AP courses are designed to provide a rigorous academic experience equivalent to a college-level course. By enrolling in an AP computer science course, students can prepare themselves for the challenges and expectations of college, as well as potentially earning college credit by passing an AP exam.

Take the leap today. Here are a few more reasons why you might want to challenge yourself.

Exciting Career Opportunities: Computer science is a rapidly growing field. And you’ll never know if you have the passion for it, if you never try! Computer science equips you with valuable skills for your future endeavors, even if you don’t become a professional programmer. 

Problem-Solving Skills: Studying computer science can help sharpen critical thinking abilities. Computational thinking lends itself to many other fields of study!

Creativity and Innovation: Unleash your creativity and express yourself. Create digital artwork and animations using code.

Automate the Boring Stuff: Explore innovative automated solutions to everyday problems, using code! See how programs can help with data collection and analysis, too.

Teamwork and Collaboration: In computer science, teamwork and “pair programming” play a crucial role in developing complex projects. Get practical experience working with your peers on thorny problems. 

Problem-Solving for Social Good: Coders can address real-world problems and make a positive impact on a community and the world at large. AP courses also explore the potentially harmful effects of technology as well as ethical programming. 

Learning to Learn: Acquire the ability to think critically, break down complex problems, and adapt to new technologies.

What’s The Difference Between Courses?

So you’re convinced. Or perhaps just curious. Which of the two courses is for you? And what’s the difference between Computer Science Principles (CSP) and Computer Science A (CSA) anyway? 

In short, AP CSA goes deeper, further, and only uses the Java programming language. Students’ scores are only impacted by their final exam, where they are tested on their computing skills using Java

In contrast, AP Computer Science Principles (CSP) is an overview course designed to be broader in coverage. Computer Science Principles doesn’t require you to learn a particular programming language — Tynker’s coursework uses Python, the most popular programming language for introductory collegiate courses. Research, writing, and reflection are part of the AP CSP curriculum, too — students go into depth considering the impacts of computing on society. 

AP Computer Science Principles was released in 2017 to increase participation in computer science. In this goal, AP CSP has been a huge success, drawing in hundreds of thousands of new students from all backgrounds. CSP involves an exam, with multiple choice questions. Students are also evaluated via an original program of the student’s own creation, sometimes called the Create Performance Task

We’ve reproduced a summary table provided by College Board here:

 Computer Science AComputer Science Principles
Curricular FocusProblem solving and object-oriented programmingBig ideas of computer science (including algorithms and programming)
Programming LanguageJavaTeachers choose the programming language
End-of-Course Exam ExperienceMultiple-choice (single-select) and free-response questionsMultiple-choice (single- and multiple-select) questions, some related to a reading passage about a computing innovation

Create performance task administered by the teacher; students submit digital artifacts
Credit: College Board

Both CSP and CSA courses are designed to be introductory, with no previous coding experience required for either course. College Board encourages any academically prepared student to take AP CSA, with Algebra I being the only official prerequisite. 

The two courses are complementary — if taken as a sequence, CSP comes before the CSA course. Successful AP CSA test-takers are more likely to receive full college credit compared to AP CSP. Contact your college or college counselor for more information.

When you subscribe to Tynker, you don’t have to choose one or the other: Tynker is an approved provider for both AP CSA and AP CSP. 

What Makes Tynker AP CS Courses Special?

For most first-time coders, seeing is believing — Tynker’s Advanced Placement courses are rigorous, College Board-approved courses, but with a fun and visual approach that gets students “over the hump” of exploring a difficult new topic. Computer science has an unfortunate but well-deserved reputation for being “hard,” especially for beginners. Tynker helps kids get excited about CS and see themselves as coders.

No experience required, for teachers or students: Students explore the basics of computer science with simple movement and canvas-drawing puzzles — hundreds of small code snippets help students gain practice with computer science by modifying scripts, extending them with new features, and making them their own. Hands-on labs, projects, and practice challenges will put students’ imaginations to the test, too.

Key learning features on Tynker: 

  • Movement Puzzles — Learn basic syntax by navigating through these challenges
  • Canvas Drawing — Explore programming basics by drawing on a canvas with code
  • Inline Code Editors — Read an online textbook and write code in the same place — a holistic solution
  • Hands-On Labs — Multi-day scaffolded projects that students must execute on their own 
  • Code Steppers — This interactive tool helps kids see code execution so they understand CS more deeply — get practice reading code like a computer does

Detailed answer keys, interactive quizzes, and creative coding activities help students prepare for all aspects of the two AP CS courses. Tynker provides Professional Development for teachers as well. Join us! 

Useful College Board Links

Find helpful links to College Board produced materials below. 

Demystifying AP Jargon

First-time students and even teachers of an AP Computer Science class might be intimidated by College Board jargon. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to help decipher common acronyms and unfamiliar terms: 

The CED — Each AP course includes a “Course and Exam Description” document (or CED) where students and teachers can get detailed information on all aspects of the course. 

CSP — Short for Computer Science Principles, College Board’s survey course. Explore the big ideas of computer science (including algorithms and programming).

CSA — Short for Computer Science A, College Board’s rigorous Java programming course. Explore object-oriented programming, hands-on. 

Create Performance Task — A student-submitted program and explanatory video that is part of the Computer Science Principles course. Think of it as building up a sample program of your own devising, a kind of digital portfolio piece. Follow the College Board guidelines exactly to get full credit. 

Artifacts — Artifacts in College Board jargon refer to human-created digital inventions like programs, videos, and software. 

FRQ — Free Response Question — An open-ended element of the CSA exam where students write Java code by hand. 

MCQ — Multiple Choice Question 

Teaching CS Made Easy

All the curriculum, tools, and resources you need to run a successful CS program. Try Tynker’s free courses today. 

About Lomit Patel

Lomit Patel is the Chief Growth Officer of Tynker, with 20 years of experience helping startups grow into successful businesses. He is also the author of the book "Lean AI" which is part of Eric Ries' bestselling "The Lean Startup" series.