Students more interested in having fun than doing good

March 11, 2011 at 10:40 am 2 comments

There’s a challenging and interesting paper being presented this afternoon at SIGCSE 2011 Exploring the Appeal of Socially Relevant Computing: Are Students Interested in Socially Relevant Problems? by Cyndi Rader, Doug Hakkarinen, Barbara Moskal, and Keith Hellman from the Colorado School of Mines. I’ve worked with Barbara Moskal before, and know her to be a careful and thoughtful evaluator. So, when I read their abstract, especially the bottom line, I was surprised and intrigued.

Prior research indicates that today‘s students, especially women, are attracted to careers in
which they recognize the direct benefit of the field for serving societal needs. Traditional
college level computer science courses rarely illustrate the potential benefits of computer
science to the broader community. This paper describes a curricula development effort
designed to embed humanitarian projects into undergraduate computer science courses. The impact of this program was measured through student self-report instruments. Through this investigation, it was found that students preferred projects that they perceived as “fun” over the projects that were social in nature.

As I expected, the paper is careful and insightful. The authors did create some new socially relevant assignments to put into CS1 and Software Engineering assignments, and they asked students about their experience doing those. They also collected a wide variety of assignment descriptions for students to rank in terms of how interesting the assignment was: “A coding of ‘1’ reflected a rating of ‘I definitely would not like to do this project’ and a coding of ‘4’ reflected a rating of ‘I definitely would like to do this project.’ In other words, a higher rating reflected greater interest in the given project.”

  • The authors found that students preferred the projects building games to those focused on social good. They also found a distinction that another researcher (Buckley et al., SIGCSE 2008) had identified — that students were more motivated by social and personally meaningful: “In other words, students may need to recognize the application of the solution to a problem to their own life.”
  • While the Software Engineering assignments worked well, the CS1-level socially-relevant assignments did not — in part, because they were just so hard.  “Our efforts were successful in Software Engineering, with 88% and 93% responding positively to the SAR and DM projects, respectively. However, only 54% of the studentsin the CS1 course, including 47% of the females, indicated that they found the SAR project appealing.” The authors conclude that, “This [the lack of interest in the socially-relevant projects in CS1] may, in part, be due to the fact that it was difficult to reduce socially relevant problems to a level that beginning students could easily comprehend. This made it difficult to capitalize on the appeal of socially relevant problems in the early computer science courses.”

I’m looking forward to seeing this paper presented this afternoon. There’s a certain cynical similarity to this paper, and work we’ve reported on about teachers. Davide Fossati’s paper on Saturday describes that faculty he interviewed changed their teaching practice for their own reasons, never because of student learning results, and Lijun Ni’s work last year showing that teachers adopt a new approach because they find something fun, not because it’s been shown to be effective.  I wonder if we’d see similar results outside the United States?

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , .

SIGCSE Board: CS programs being canned or downgraded iPads for College Classrooms? Not So Fast, Some Professors Say. – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  March 11, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Again … Anthropology and Psych 101 for the larger points, and what seem to be inference errors for the other points (are they so sure they are nailing down the cases so they can validly use “reasoning by exclusion”?)

    This seems soft on one hand, and kind of like “generating a paper” on the other.



  • 2. Bettina Bair  |  March 12, 2011 at 8:10 am

    I didn’t get to see the paper presented, but the conclusion seems in line with my own findings (

    She might also be working from a sample bias… that there is a /kind/ of student that would take her CS1 and Software Engineering course to start with.


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