Archive for November 1, 2012

How do CS students make educational decisions? Previewing Mike Hewner’s PhD Defense

Mike Hewner may be the most technically adept student with whom I’ve worked — he’s a former Senior Software Engineer from Amazon.  He’s written probably the most intensely qualitative dissertation of any student with whom I’ve worked.  Mike used a grounded theory approach with 37 interviews.  The amount of analysis and coding he did is staggering.

His question is one that impacts all computer science teachers.  We know (from lots of sources) that students don’t really understand computer science.  Mike set out to document how students’ misunderstandings lead them astray in their CS undergraduate degree program, e.g., avoiding some classes because they misunderstood what they were about, or pursuing some specialization because they thought it was something that it really wasn’t.  The surprising result was that he didn’t really find evidence of that.  Instead, students simply trusted the curriculum — they didn’t know what was coming, but they didn’t worry about it.

As I learned from Mike’s process, grounded theory results in a “theory,” i.e. a description of a mechanism.  Mike’s theory describes how students make educational decisions.  His theory tells us that factors that shouldn’t really matter (like whether the intro course is at 8 am) do impact decisions like whether to pursue CS as a major.  I’ll give away Mike’s punchline: Students use “enjoyment” to decide if they have an affinity for a subject.  They turn the question “Should I be a CS major? Am I good at it?” into “Did I enjoy my CS class? Did I enjoy another class more?”  They don’t really distinguish between “I have a hard time understanding functions” and “The class was at 8 am” or “That was a lousy teacher.”  Not enjoyment means no affinity, which means look for something else.  Once students decide that they have an affinity for something, they do develop a more goal-based decision making process — they’ll stick through the hard classes, because it helps them achieve the goal of the degree that they’ve decided that they have an affinity for.

Mike is defending on Friday — I’m really looking forward to it.  I heard the practice talk Tuesday and was impressed.  Assuming all goes well, Mike will be joining Rose-Hulman in the Spring.

Title: Student Conceptions About the Field of Computer Science
Michael Hewner
Human-Centered Computing
School of Interactive Computing
College of Computing
Georgia Institute of Technology
Date: Friday, November 2, 2012
Time: 1:00-4:00pm
Location: TSRB 132
Committee:
————-
Prof. Mark Guzdial (Advisor, College of Computing, Georgia Institute
of Technology)
Prof. Amy Bruckman (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Prof. Keith Edwards (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Prof. Ellen Zegura (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Prof. Yasmin Kafai (School of Graduate Education, University of Pennsylvania)
Abstract:
————-
Computer Science is a complex field, and even experts do not always
agree how the field should be defined. Though a moderate amount is
known about how precollege students think about the field of CS, less
is known about how CS majors’ conceptions of the field develop during
the undergraduate curriculum.  Given the difficulty of understanding
CS, how do students make educational decisions like what electives or
specializations to pursue?
This work presents a theory of student conceptions of CS, based on 37
interviews with students and student advisers and analyzed with a
grounded theory approach.  Students tend to have one of three main
views about CS: CS as an academic discipline focused on the
mathematical study of algorithms, CS as mostly about programming but
also incorporating supporting subfields, and CS as a broad discipline
with many different (programming and non-programming) subfields.  I
have also developed and piloted a survey instrument to determine how
prevalent each kind of conception in the undergraduate population.
I also present a theory of student educational decisions in CS.
Students do not usually have specific educational goals in CS and
instead take an exploratory approach to their classes.  Particularly
enjoyable or unenjoyable classes cause them to narrow their
educational focus.  As a result, students do not reason very deeply
about the CS content of their classes when they make educational
decisions.
This work makes three main contributions: the theory of student
conceptions, the theory of student educational decisions, and the
preliminary survey instrument for evaluating student conceptions.
This work has applications in CS curriculum design as well as for
future research in the CS education community.

November 1, 2012 at 8:27 am 12 comments


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