SIGCSE 2013 Preview: Measuring attitudes in introductory computing

February 15, 2013 at 1:49 am 5 comments

Brian Dorn and Allison Elliott Tew have been working on a new assessment instrument for measuring attitudes towards computing.  They published a paper at ICER 2012 on its development, and the new SIGCSE 2013 paper is on its initial uses.

In general, we have too few research measures in computing education research.  Allison’s dissertation work stands alone as the only validated language-independent measure of CS1.  Brian and Allison have been following a careful process of developing the Computing Attitudes Survey (CAS).  They’re developing their instrument based on a measure created for Physics. The Physics instrument has already been adapted for Chemistry and Biology, so the process of adaptation is well-defined.

What’s particularly cool about CAS is that it can be used as a pre-test/post-test.  What were the attitude effects of a particular intervention?  The SIGCSE 2013 paper describes use of CAS in a set of pre-test/post-test situations.

Here comes the remarkable part.  In the other fields, an introductory course actually leads to decreased interest in the field (more specifically, in attitudes less-like experts in the field).  But not in computer science!  The CAS indicates increased interest in the field after the first course.

Why is that?  I like the hypothesis that Brian and Allison suggest.  Students have some clue what physics, biology, and chemistry — but it’s probably significantly wrong about real practice, and real practice is more rigorous than they thought.  Students have almost no clue what computer science is. They probably have misconceptions, but they are not tightly held — we’ve found that high school students’ perceptions of what CS is can be changed pretty easily.  After a first CS course, students realize that it’s more interesting than they thought, so attitudes become more expert-like and positive.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  February 15, 2013 at 7:36 am

    And it’s certainly not as rigorous as real sciences like Physics, Chemistry or Biology!

    (Or even most Real Engineering …)



    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  February 15, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      I may have been unclear: The attitudes survey is not about what students like better. The attitudes survey measures agreements with statements like this: “When working on a complex computer science problem, I have to understand all of the details of the program implementation before I am able to make progress on a solution.” This is an attitude toward the field. What Brian and Allison found that students’ attitudes after an intro course were more like an expert’s (i.e., they more likely agreed with what the expert agreed with, and disagreed with what experts disagreed with). So CS students think about CS more like CS professionals and professors (the experts that Brian and Allison took a baseline from) after their first course, than students in Biology, Chemistry, or Physics.

  • 3. Ken Bauer (@ken_bauer)  |  February 15, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Anecdotal, but I have had many students switch to CS as a major after taking the introductory course with me. I’ve also had some switch out of CS, but I find that to be a good thing since either way they are making a more informed decision on what degree to finish.

    Recruiters and marketers for universities need to do a better job explaining the program. More importantly, we need more exposure of CS in K-12 and in society in general (looks toward the upcoming “The Internship” movie release).

  • 4. Grant Hutchison  |  February 19, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Similar anecdotal evidence from a High School CS teacher.
    Last week I mentioned to a parent that my CS student teacher decided to switch from Biology to CS after first year University. The parent asked him – Why? His response was priceless – “I discovered that remembering all of the facts necessary to be successful in Biology was a bigger challenge than exploring Computer Science techniques.”

    My follow-on question was “Did you take CS courses in high school?” and he didn’t even know that they existed, but he enjoyed robotics courses in High School. It is the role of each High School CS teacher to engage students with interesting projects and explore the breadth of CS and not just “coding”.

  • […] already written a couple of SIGCSE Symposium 2013 preview posts (on the Dorn and Elliott Tew paper, and on the UCSD set of papers on Peer Instruction).  Here in my last preview post, I’ll […]


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