Archive for May 7, 2018

Why are CS students so hard to nudge? A theory for why it’s so hard to promote a growth mindset in CS1

Pearson took a lot of heat recently for trying to improve students’ mindset in My Programming Lab.  I’m slightly worried about the ethics of their “embedded experiment.” I’m more worried that it didn’t work.

Titled “Embedding Research-Inspired Innovations in EdTech: An RCT of Social-Psychological Interventions, at Scale,” the study placed 9,000 students using MyLab Programming into three groups, each receiving different messages from the software as they attempted to solve questions. Some students received “growth-mindset messages,” while others received “anchoring of effect” messages. (A third control group received no messaging at all.) The intent was to see if such messages encouraged students to solve more problems. Neither the students nor the professors were ever informed of the experiment, raising concerns of consent.

The “growth mindset messages” emphasized that learning a skill is a lengthy process, cautioning students offering wrong answers not to expect immediate success. One example: “No one is born a great programmer. Success takes hours and hours of practice.” “Anchoring of effect” messages told students how much effort is required to solve problems, such as: “Some students tried this question 26 times! Don’t worry if it takes you a few tries to get it right.”

As Education Week reports, the interventions offered seemingly no benefit to the students. Students who received no special messages attempted to solve more problems (212) than students in either the growth-mindset (174) or anchoring groups (156). The researchers emphasized this could have been due any of a variety of factors, as the software is used differently in different schools.

Source: Pearson Embedded a ‘Social-Psychological’ Experiment in Students’ Educational Software [Updated]

Beth Simon and her colleagues tried a similar experiment, reported at ICER 2008.  They did get informed consent.  They tried a similar kind of “nudge” to get students to adopt a growth mindset.  It didn’t work for Beth et al., either.

I advised Kantwon Rogers’ MS in HCI project, where he tried to nudge CS1 students (both on-line and off-line) to have a greater sense of “belongingness” in CS.  Similar to these previous studies, he sent email prompts to students — some just encouraged study skills, and others promoted a sense that they belongs and could succeed in CS.  In almost all of his conditions, belongingness dropped.

What’s going on here?  Why are CS students so impervious to these prompts that have been successful in other settings?

I have a theory.  There’s a notion in the behavioral sciences literature that you get more success changing behavior or promoting attitudes by reducing barriers than by prompting for desired behavior or attitudes.  The analogy is to a large boulder that you want to move: You can push it and push it, or you can just dig away the dirt from the bottom.  The latter is likely to get the boulder rolling without as much effort.

Here’s my theory: Introductory CS classes have systemic issues that encourage a fixed mindset and discourage a sense of belongingThere are too many signals to students that they can’t succeed, that they can’t get better, and that they don’t belong — perhaps especially in times of rising enrollment. Mere nudges are not going to move the boulder.  We’re going to have to remove the barriers to belonging, self-efficacy, and the sense that students can succeed at CS.


May 7, 2018 at 7:00 am 17 comments

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