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

November 1, 2012 at 8:27 am 15 comments

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
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)
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
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.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  November 1, 2012 at 8:38 am

    An important question that wasn’t addressed in your blog entry was “why did they take their first CS course?” — and “which one?” — or are both of these mandatory at GT these days?

    I think the feeling of an “affinity” is a good term to use here. I struggled a bit about “what was not already understood about how students go about their business?”

    This process was pretty well understood 60 years ago in the “core curriculum” days of a wide variety of mandatory courses presented in the first two years of college. Part of the reason — besides general exposure — was just to maximize “collisions with possible affinities”.



    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  November 1, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Yes, everyone at Georgia Tech takes computer science, but Mike explicitly focused on CS majors (in order to constrain the space). He interviewed mostly Sophomores and Juniors, with some Seniors, at three different Universities.


      • 3. nickfalkner  |  November 2, 2012 at 4:30 am

        Very interesting post, thank you. I had the same question as Alan, because I was wondering when we can get that “stick at it” affinity locked in and, of course, if we can make that happen sooner. This is (yet another) driver to bring forward the “I love Computer Science” affinity into the schools, I guess, because having 8am (or other badly scheduled) lectures is often unavoidable in a 20-60,000 student University because of the curricular diversity and space issues.

        We’ve seen similar effects on new topics in Computer Science in the final year of undergrad, which appear to be assessed under the same “I don’t know if I like it yet” light.

        I shall look forward to the thesis!

  • 4. Shawn Bohner  |  November 1, 2012 at 10:19 am

    This is a great question addressed in the dissertation and I bet it generalizes to software engineering and other disciplines. We are excited at Rose-Hulman to be having Mike join our faculty. Good luck in your defense Mike!

  • 5. Sean Feeney  |  November 1, 2012 at 11:42 am

    I think this work is very important as CS is indeed over generalized at far too many institutions. If you split the major, as Rose-Hulman does, you can at least differentiate between those who enjoy the mathematical study of algorithms (CS) and those focused on one of the other two views (SE). But the Rose-Hulman approach still has far too much overlap between the two majors to really make much of a difference. From the review in this blog (and for future application by Shawn and Mike at Rose), it sounds like it may make sense to diverge the two majors earlier to keep CSSE students engaged and “enjoying” the program in order to increase program retention. If students are making such decisions early in their academic career, maybe it doesn’t make sense to wait until Junior year to really differentiate the majors. Food for thought.

    • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 2, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      Sean’s advice to differentiate as early as possible is exactly opposite to Alan’s advice to have a wide core curriculum to ‘ maximize “collisions with possible affinities”.’

      My own education has stretched over 50 years and I have made fairly major changes of field about every 15 years. Many of our grad students are re-entry students seeking such a major change, finding that their earlier eduction had been too narrow.

      I tend to favor Alan’s approach—broad early exposure to many fields, rather than early narrow specialization. But that does mean EARLY exposure. Waiting until students are in college to teach them how to program is really too late—getting them thinking in computational ways while they are still absorbing how the world works naturally is likely to much more effective. I think that efforts like Scratch (and, historically, Logo and BASIC) to reach out to much younger students are more important than twiddling with the college curriculum or even increasing high school computer science, as important as those may be.

  • 7. astrachano  |  November 1, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Mike also made great contributions to our program when he was at Duke last year — so in addition to his research (and I haven’t read his dissertation) he is a great educator/teacher as well.

  • […] Mike Hewner successfully passed his PhD dissertation defense on Friday. There are just some dissertation tweaks and bureaucracy to go.  In the process of the defense, there were several really interesting implications for his theory that got spelled out, and they relate to some of the comments made in response to my post on his dissertation last week. […]

  • […] The More-Computing Hypothesis: We thought that non-CS majors taking MediaComp would become enlightened and take more CS classes.  No, that didn’t really happen, and Mike Hewner’s work helped us understand why not. […]

  • […] results seem consistent with Mike Hewner’s thesis results.  If a student likes her intro course more, they are more likely to take that major.  Students […]

  • […] and then decide to take it?  Or are they deciding to take some CS and end up in this class?  Based on Mike Hewner’s work, I don’t think that students know much about the content of even great classes like […]

  • […] age helps to demystify an area that can be intimidating.”  I strongly agree with that one.  We know that kids have weird ideas about CS, and seeing any real CS has a dramatic impact (especially on under-represented […]

  • […] Hewner and Shitanshu Mishra replicated Mike’s dissertation study about how students choose CS as a major, but in Indian institutions rather than in US institutions: […]

  • […] that high school students know very little about what actually happens in undergraduate CS, and undergraduate students in CS don’t even know what’s in their next semester’s class…. Changing the curriculum doesn’t do much good if the girls’ decisions are being made […]

  • […] When I make this suggestion to University faculty, I often hear the argument, “Anything you require of students, they will hate.” Then they tell me an anecdote of some student who hated a requirement, or of some personal experience of a class they hated. I know of no empirical evidence that says that this is generally true. We do have empirical evidence that says it’s false. Mike Hewner’s work found that US students take required classes in order to discover what they…. […]


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