The teaching of introductory computer science can benefit from the use of real-world context to ground the abstract programming concepts. We present the domain of pencil puzzles as a context for a variety of introductory CS topics. Pencil puzzles are puzzles typically found in newspapers and magazines, intended to be solved by the reader through the means of deduction, using only a pencil. A well-known ex- ample of a pencil puzzle is Sudoku, which has been widely used as a typical backtracking assignment. However, there are dozens of other well-tried and liked pencil puzzles avail- able that naturally induce computational thinking and can be used as context for many CS topics such as arrays, loops, recursion, GUIs, inheritance and graph traversal. Our con- tributions in this paper are two-fold. First, we present a few pencil puzzles and map them to introductory CS concepts that the puzzles can target in an assignment, and point the reader to other puzzle repositories which provide the poten- tial to lead to an almost limitless set of introductory CS assignments. Second, we have formally evaluated the effec- tiveness of such assignments used at our institution over the past three years. Students reported that they have learned the material, believe they can tackle similar problems, and have improved their coding skills. The assignments also led to a significantly higher proportion of unsolicited statements of enjoyment, as well as metacognition, when compared to a traditional assignment for the same topic. Lastly, for all but one assignment, the student’s gender or prior programming experience was independent of their grade, their perceptions of and reflection on the assignment.

Date of creation, presentation, or exhibit



© ACM 2017. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive Version of Record was published in Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education,

Document Type

Conference Paper

Department, Program, or Center

Department of Computing Security (GCCIS)


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