Choices aren’t Decisions: Implications of Hewner’s Theory of CS Major’s Decision-Making

November 6, 2012 at 9:14 am 7 comments

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.

Early choice is not early decision: In response to a question about when students should decide their specializations (should it be earlier in the degree or later in the degree), Mike said, “Making a choice early doesn’t force making a decision early.”  We then spent some time unpacking that.

In Mike’s theory, students spend time exploring until they face a differential in enjoyment between classes that students interpret as an affinity for one topic over another.  Students use this process to decide on a major, or to decide on a specialization area within a major.  Once they’ve made a decision, they are more committed, and are willing to go through less-enjoyable classes in pursuit of a goal that they have now decided on.  Forcing students to make a choice early (between majors or specializations) doesn’t change this process — they don’t decide earlier to become committed to a major or specialization.  Forcing the choice early may mean dealing graduation, when students finally decide on something else and become committed to that other path.

Job as ill-defined goal: One of the surprising and somewhat contradictory ideas in Mike’s thesis is that, while US students today may be more driven to get a college education in order to get a better job or a middle class lifestyle, they don’t necessarily know what that job entails.  Students that Mike interviewed rarely could describe what kind of job they wanted, or if they did, it was vague (“Work for Google”) and the students couldn’t explain what that job would require or what classes they should take to prepare for that job.

When we were first developing Threads, we talked about helping students to describe the kind of job they wanted, and then we could advise them to pick the Threads that would help them achieve that career.  But Mike’s theory says that that’s backwards.  Students don’t know what kind of job they want.  They use experiences in the classes to help them decide what kind of work they will enjoy.

Hewner’s theory is constructivist.  Mike was asked, “How would you advise a student such that they could figure out the best Thread for themselves?”  Mike’s response was that students would need to do something that was authentic and representative of work within that Thread — which is hard to do in an accessible manner for students who don’t know much about that Thread yet.  You can’t just tell students about the Threads or about the jobs that fit into the Threads.  It’s unlikely that students will be able to successfully predict if they would enjoy the work in the Thread based on a description.

In some sense, Mike’s theory is intensely constructivist.  Mike’s students won’t decide on a major, specialization or career choice until they experience the work of that major, specialization, or career choice, and then decide if they enjoy it or not for themselves.  If decisions are made based on enjoyment, you can’t tell someone that they’d enjoy the experience. They have to figure it out for themselves.


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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Audrey Watters (@audreywatters)  |  November 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    This is really interesting — I wonder how this research relates to efforts like Austin Peay’s “Degree Compass,” a Netflix-like course recommendation system (

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  November 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      My guess is: A choice isn’t a decision. The compass could suggest something, and the student might explore it. Experience and enjoyment will lead to a decision to commit to the area.

  • 3. Barry Brown  |  November 7, 2012 at 12:52 am

    I imagine many westerners dream of working in a career that they enjoy. Consequently, they may have chosen their major based on a course they found enjoyable. I don’t think this is a CS phenomenon. Aren’t his conclusions applicable to most other majors?

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  November 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

      Could very well be. We started this work knowing (from others’ findings) that high school students know less about what CS is than what other STEM fields are when they enter undergrad. The question was: How does that impact their educational decision-making? What we found is that it doesn’t really. Sure, the findings may extend to other majors, but Mike only interviewed CS majors and their advisors, and he’s a careful researcher. He’s not going to make broader claims. It may be that his theory is generally describing how all undergrads make decisions, but we only developed it from CS majors.

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  • […] subject,” and if the girls know anything about the curriculum in CS.  In our research, we found that high school students know very little about what actually happens in undergraduate CS, and undergraduate students in CS don’t even […]


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