Archive for January 19, 2018

What does it mean for Computer Science to be harder to learn than other STEM subjects?

I made an argument in my Blog@CACM Post for this month that “Learning Computer Science is Different than Learning Other STEM Disciplines,” and on Twitter, I explicitly added “It’s harder.”

In my Blog@CACM post, I thought it was a no-brainer that CS is harder:

  1. Our infrastructure for teaching CS is younger, smaller, and weaker  (CS is so new, and we don’t have the decades of experience to figure out how to do it well yet.)

  2. We don’t realize how hard learning to program is (The fact that the Rainfall problem seems easy, but it’s clearly not easy, means that CS teachers don’t know how to estimate yet what’s hard for students, so our classes are probably harder than we mean them to be.)

  3. CS is so valuable that it changes the affective components of learning (Classes that are stuffed full of both CS majors and non-majors means that issues of self-efficacy, motivation, and belonging are much bigger in CS than in other STEM disciplines.)

The push back was really interesting.  People pointed out that they took CS classes and math classes, or CS and physics, and CS seemed easy in comparison.  They may be right, but that’s self-report on introspection by people who succeeded at both classes.  My point is that we are probably flunking out (or students are giving up, or opting out) of CS at much higher rates than any other STEM subject, because of the reasons I give.  We’re really using two different measures of “harder” — harder to succeed, or harder in retrospect once succeeded.

I only have a qualitative argument for “It’s harder.” I’m not sure how one would even evaluate the point empirically.  Any suggestions?  How could we measure when one subject is harder than another?

It’s not an important question to answer which is harder, CS vs math, or CS vs physics. A much more important and supportable claim is that CS “is harder” than it needs to be.  We have a lot of extraneous complexity and cognitive load in learning CS.

January 19, 2018 at 7:00 am 18 comments


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