Rethinking introductory CS classes to make them less intimidating for beginners

For many students, the experience they have in their first year or even first semester of university can have a considerable impact on their decision to continue with a degree, change degrees or drop out entirely. In a survey of 1200 Australian students who had withdrawn from, deferred or changed their university enrolment 48% of students were in their first year of study and a further 34% were in their second year.

Women were significantly overrepresented in the group of students who withdrew from study completely (59%) as well as those who changed degrees (67%). Women were also far more likely to cite course difficulty as their main reason for withdrawal. Interestingly, female students who changed degrees most often cited lack of enjoyment, concern about career prospects and preference for teaching styles as their reasons for change.

Although universities and faculties have limited control over the personal circumstances of students who drop out or change degrees, they have a direct ability to impact the institutional/course factors in this equation.

What could faculties and universities do to address the main reasons women leave or change courses? By making adjustments to the way CS courses and in particular introductory courses are taught, faculties could reduce the risk of female students leaving.

1. Reframe classes

A study undertaken at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 90s compared the reasons that male and female students chose to study computer science. While male students overwhelmingly identified ‘enjoyment of computing‘ as their only motivation for choosing CS, female students identified multiple reasons including versatility of the field, that is it maths/science related, the prospect of safe and secure employment and encouragement by others. Many female students identified connections between CS and other fields as making CS more a compelling and meaningful area of study.

If you had a choice between enrolling in one of the following subject which would you chose?

a) Introduction to Programming in Java

OR

b) Computations Approaches to Problem Solving with Python 

For many women who enrol in CS degrees, they will have little or no prior programming experience. They may not have a good idea of what programming involves and unknowns are naturally intimidating. Reframing introductory subjects with a focus on problem solving has been shown to reduce the level or apprehension students feel about undertaking introductory CS subjects and increase student engagement and enjoyment. Problem solving is a concept that people of all genders* can relate to.

In addition to reframing their introductory CS course with a focus on problem solving, the CS faculty as Harvey Mudd College allowed students to choose between a number of topics for each of their assignments. This increased the level of student choice and feelings of autonomy over their learning experience which was found to be incredibly empowering. In one year this course went from the most despised to the most loved by students1. The number of female students undertaking the course skyrocketed and has remained at almost 50%.

2. Link CS to other fields of study

Alan Noble wrote recently about how to get students more excited about CS by combining it with other areas of study they are passionate about. Recontextualising introductory CS courses by making links between CS and other disciplines can be particularly motivating for female students. In the CMU study, 40% of female students placed their CS study in the context of other areas of study such as health/medicine, space or the arts while only 9% of male students made the same connection.

Not only can this increase student enjoyment and engagement in courses, it also allows students to be exposed to the wide variety of careers that a technical education can lead to, addressing any concerns that students may have about career prospects early in their education.

3. Stream introductory classes

Another change introduced at HMC was to stream the introductory courses based on students’ prior experience in programming. Student with no prior experience made up one class, student with a reasonable amount of programming experience made up a second class and students with significant experience were exempt from introductory subjects altogether.

As an undergraduate IT student, my university offered streamed classes for the first two mandatory programming courses. Instead of streaming based on prior programming experience, entry into the advanced classes was determined on students’ UAI. I question the value of splitting students on that basis alone. Despite getting reasonably good marks in high school, I lacked confidence in my programming abilities and certainly did not feel like an ‘expert’ like some of the other students in the advanced classes.

By grouping students with others of similar experience levels, students are more likely to be able to grown their confidence in a non-threatening learning environment. This acts to increase their confidence, which has a direct correlation to successful degree completion, especially for minority student groups2. Streaming classes avoids less experienced students being intimidated or overwhelmed by the knowledge of more experienced students whose abilities do not accurately represent the average standard. Grouping students by prior experience would also allow teaching staff to better tailor their pace and approach to suit the needs of a more unified student group.

I believe these three adjustments to introductory CS courses would make a considerable impact of the main reasons female students leave tertiary courses: course difficulty, lack of enjoyment, concern about career prospects and teaching styles. In addition, these changes would go some way towards making CS study less intimidating and would support students to build their confidence early in their university career, setting them up to successfully complete their degree.

Next week I’ll go into more detail about how faculties can build cultures that support a sense of belonging for female students.


*I deliberately used the phrase ‘all genders‘ rather than ‘both genders‘ because I believe that considering gender as purely binary is archaic. But that’s a topic big enough for a post of its own.

1See Maria Klawe’s lecture at 45:08 for more details.

Harris, 2009, The Relationship Between Self-Esteem and Academic Success Among African American Students in the Minority Engineering Program at A Research Extensive University in the Southern Portion of the United States.

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