It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses if We Want Students to Continue

June 22, 2018 at 7:00 am 8 comments

Thanks to Gary Stager who sent this link to me. The results mesh with Pat Alexander’s Model of Domain Learning. A true novice to a field is not going to pursue studies because of interest in the field — a novice doesn’t know the field. The novice is going to pursue studies because of social pressures, e.g., it’s a requirement for a degree or a job, it’s expected by family or community, or the teacher is motivating.  As the novice becomes an intermediate, interest in the domain can drive further study.  These studies suggest that persistence is more likely to happen if the teacher is a committed, full-time teacher.

The first professor whom students encounter in a discipline, evidence suggests, plays a big role in whether they continue in it.

On many campuses, teaching introductory courses typically falls to less-experienced instructors. Sometimes the task is assigned to instructors whose very connection to the college is tenuous. A growing body of evidence suggests that this tension could have negative consequences for students.

Two papers presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in New York on Sunday support this idea.

The first finds that community-college students who take a remedial or introductory course with an adjunct instructor are less likely to take the next course in the sequence.

The second finds negative associations between the proportion of a four-year college’s faculty members who are part-time or off the tenure track and outcomes for STEM majors.

Source: It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses. Here’s Why.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  June 22, 2018 at 7:28 am

    Is this “welcome to our oral non-literate non-media society?”

    I.e. most of the things I got interested in and wanted to learn were in none of Mark’s reasons for pursuing. I found out about things and wanted to learn them from reading, from hearing music on the radio (no TV in those days), from seeing things being done around me, etc. I almost always had a head start before I found a teacher, and only in a few cases was this not a good idea. (In matters of technique I was sometimes off, but not far enough so that it was difficult to correct via a teacher’s better advice.)

    This was also true for most school subjects, but this was a much more difficult route, because the teachers had real power over the children, and most of them didn’t know their subjects very well.

    As a beginner, I didn’t know the subjects very well either, but my heuristic was “read a few books”, and I’d usually get more perspective on what they were supposed to be. As a very young kid I would very often read the article in the World Book Encyclopedia before trying to tackle adult material in books or in the Britannica.

    I’m not arguing against Mark’s general premises, but am trying to point out that the most important things in education surely have to be to teach and encourage the children at every age — and show them by example — how to find out things for themselves. And especially to be able to escape from “oral modes” of thought and behavior to “literate modes” (more and more difficult with the nature of most media today, I realize).,

    I just ran across this again in a Quora question I got, asking me for “good Xerox Parc stories”. My reply was to show the questioner what I did online to find the sources of these stories (this happens all the time, and it really bugs me considering all the work that went into putting the world just a few clicks away from the next steps, and finding that the world doesn’t really think about making the clicks).

  • 2. zamanskym  |  June 22, 2018 at 10:39 am

    You can see this on the high school level as well. I’ve seen some departments populate lower level courses with their best teachers to both give a solid foundation and also to “rope in” more students. Other departments allocate the best teachers to their honors sequence and the results show – no growth in terms of interest in the field in the school.

    You can also see the flip side where students leave an intro experience extremely excited but the interest is more coming from the passionate charismatic teacher than from a blossoming interest in the field and that becomes clear a few years later. I suspect we’ll see a fair amount of this with some of the newer intro CS experiences that are taught by the most charismatic of teachers.

  • 3. gflint  |  June 23, 2018 at 12:34 am

    I had experience with this just last week. One of my high school juniors is taking a Intro to Programming course at the local university. The kid is a programming geek. He loves it. Being curious about the course I sat in for 3 days. It is a very tedious Python syntax course. My student is re-evaluating his future in CS. His concern is if it is more of this he is not interested. After 3 days I have to agree. The course is guaranteed to chase interested students out of the CS field. The instructor has no clue what she is doing to her students. She is an assistant CS professor and maybe an excellent programmer or an excellent instructor for upper level programming courses but at this level she is pure death. An Intro to Programming course should not be a boring but very difficult into to syntax. This instructor has no idea how to get students interested and excited about programming. Of course finding instructors at the college level who can actually teach is difficult. It is simply not in their field of interest or in their skill set. There are exceptions but they are just that, exceptions.

    At the high school level, at least in the 3 public school in my town. it is the new teachers get the least desirable teaching assignments. The senior teachers feel they have “earned” the advanced courses with the usually more motivated students. When I came out of college I was well prepared to teach a calculus course, I had just completed several years of the stuff, but totally unprepared to teach a class of immature, highly unmotivated Alg 1 students. That should be for an experienced teacher that has a good understanding of classroom management and a solid pedagogy developed with years of experience. Calculus and pre-calc are EASY to teach compared to Alg 1 and Alg 2.

    Knowing content does not make a good teacher. Being able to deliver that content so the students actually show a little interest and have some retention is what makes a good teacher.

    • 4. alanone1  |  June 23, 2018 at 1:08 am

      I think this is a good perspective on this topic. The kid already got into programming for his own reasons, and the bad teacher is killing off his interest. I think this happens a lot. I also quite agree with the general idea that the earlier one goes the more the teacher should know about the subject and how to teach it.

      I’ve advocated paying elementary school teachers twice as much or more than high school or college teachers, but also raising their standards to this level. I think this would wind up requiring something like the training and vetting that Montessori teachers had to go through when Maria Montessori was designing and running things.

      I haven’t heard of a “real 21st century Montessori school” up to 8th or 9th grade or so — but it would be a really interesting — and I think wonderful — thing to see.

      • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 23, 2018 at 11:41 am


        In the US since 1967, anyone can use “Montessori” to describe their school, no matter how little they follow Maria Montessori’s methods. This has made research into how well Montessori schools work rather difficult, as there is no easy way to define what the experimental condition is. Plus, what little research I’ve seen was badly controlled (students at the private Montessori schools were higher SES than the comparison group) and small samples, so unconvincing. There may be some better research out there—I only did a brief scan of the literature a few years ago.

        There are a few Montessori schools that go through high school, but Maria Montessori did not develop any techniques for students that age, so everything there is a more recent extrapolation of her methods.


        I agree that a syntax-heavy course can kill interest in CS—the joy of programming is in problem-solving and developing elegant solutions, not learning details of syntax. An approach based on either doing things that interest the students (the computational media approach that Mark Guzdial favors) or on puzzle-solving (the Project Euler approach, for example) seems more likely to succeed than a slog though syntax.

        One reason I favor Python over Java as a first language (or second, after Scratch) is that the minimal syntax is less daunting and there is less “ritual magic” needed to create a working program. My main objection to the AP CS A curriculum is that it is very syntax heavy, partly because of its reliance on Java and partly because it often needs to be taught by teachers who know little CS beyond Java syntax.

        • 6. alanone1  |  June 23, 2018 at 12:47 pm

          I mentioned Montessori, meaning the actual Montessori Method as described in her books from more than 100 years ago, and which has been scrutinized in many ways since. Worth looking into the original sources here. Similarly, worth looking into the original sources for Bruner’s work, including his many books.

          And yes you are right that “Montessori” is often just a brand name in the US (along with many “Suzuki violin” schools). The US likes “designer jeans” aka expensive dungarees with labels. But many of the originators of great educational processes were very deep and worth understanding.

    • 7. Bonnie  |  June 25, 2018 at 1:43 pm

      The problem here is not what is being taught in the course, but that the kid is in the wrong course. Why on earth would a kid who already programs be taking an Intro course? The reason the instructor teaches syntax is because probably most of the kids in the class have never programmed before and need explicit instruction in syntax. I teach a lot of students who have no prior programming experience, and believe me, they get very upset if I do not go over the syntax.
      My HS son is also a good programmer, both in Java and Python, and is thankfully placing out of the introductory programming course at the school he will be attending. At my university, we try to identify students who are already competent programmers, and place them in an appropriate course

  • […] say that they are unlikely to start a new subject unless there’s social pressure to do so (see Pat Alexander’s Model of Domain Learning). Would HTM’s feel social pressure? […]


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