Why do students study computing, especially programming

June 17, 2020 at 9:03 am 12 comments

Alan Kay asked me in a comment on my blog post from Monday:

You and your colleagues have probably done a survey over the years, but it would be useful to see one or two examples, and especially one from the present time of “why are you currently studying computing, especially programming?”

It would be illuminating — and very important — to see the reasons, and especially the percentage who say: “to learn and understand and do computing and programming”.

A half-dozen papers sprang to mind. Rather than type them into a teeny tiny response box, I’m going to put them here. This is not a comprehensive survey. It’s the papers that occurred to me at 8:30 am EDT in response to Alan’s query.

The biggest recent study of this question is the Santo, Vogel, and Ching white paper CS for What? Diverse Visions of Computer Science Education in Practice (find it here). This paper is particularly valuable because it starts K-12 — what are the reasons for studying CS in school?

The most recent paper I know on this topic (and there were probably new ones at RESPECT and SIGCSE 2020 that I haven’t found yet) is this one from Koli, It’s like computers speak a different language: Beginning Students’ Conceptions of Computer Science (find it here). I liked this one because I most resonated with the “Creator” perspective, but I design today for those with the “Interpreter” perspective.

Alan particularly asked what we had done in our group. We started asking these questions when we were doing Media Computation (here’s a 2005 paper where we got those answers from Georgia Tech and Gainesville College students — GT students mostly wanted to know how to use a computer better and then get a good grade, while Gainesville students wanted to know what programming was). We got different answers from the follow-on course MediaComp Data Structures course where we started seeing a real split in views (see Lana Yarosh’s paper here). When we were doing “Georgia Computes!”, we did a statewide survey in 2010 to understand influences on students’ persistence in CS (see paper here). This is important to read, to realize that it’s not just about ability and desire. Women and BIPOC students are told that they don’t belong, and they need particular attention and encouragement to get them to go on, even if they believe they could and should. Probably the study from my group most explicitly on this question is Mike Hewner’s Undergraduate conceptions of the field of computer science (see paper here).

Two of my former students, but not with me, developed a validated computing attitudes survey (Tew, Dorn, and Schneider, paper here). Here, they ask experts what CS is, then use the same instrument to ask students what CS is, so that they can compare how “expert-like” the students answers are.

Not from my research group, but a really important paper in this space is Maureen Biggers et al’s Student perceptions of computer science: a retention study comparing graduating seniors with CS leavers (see link here). Most studies look at those who stay in CS. Maureen and her team also interviewed those who left, and how their perception of the field differed.

There are so many others, like the “Draw a Computer Scientist” task to elicit what the field is about (see example paper here and here). I particularly like Philip Guo’s groups paper on “conversational programmers” — people who study programming so that they can talk to programmers, not to ever program or to understand programming (see CHI’16 paper here).

Here’s what I think is the main answer to Alan’s question: Yes, it’s changed. But there are some specific answers that are consistent. Yes, some want to learn programming. Others want to learn programming as part of general computer skills.

I’m going to stop here and push this out before my meetings start for the day. I invite readers to add their favorite papers answering this question below.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  June 17, 2020 at 9:32 am

    Hi Mark

    I was particularly interested in the percentage of respondents who were “just interested in the subject” vs those who had vocational plans involving computing in the future.

    A parallel example might be “Why did you take this Shakespeare course?”. I think most would say because they wanted to learn more, and very few would say “because I plan to be a pro actor” or especially “I plan to be a pro Shakespearean actor”.

    I.e. Quite a few courses in college used to be / are about expanding one’s knowledge about something just because of interest.

    The other prevalent answer from years ago would be “Because this is a required course”.

    This is what I’d like to home in on for computing in college.

    It would especially be interesting to understand the percentages of kids who are not doing well in computing in the three categories (the 3rd being “I want to get a job in computing”).

    Reply
    • 2. alanone1  |  June 17, 2020 at 9:55 am

      P.S. The Santo, Vogel, and Ching paper is full of special pleadings (some of which I agree with) from teachers etc, but it has no survey of students and why they decided to study computing.

      The Koli Calling paper is about students’ conceptions about the field not why they decided to study it — it also lacks the identification of cohorts that one would expect. I don’t think they asked “why” but just “what”.

      The Tew, Fowler and Guzdial paper is “better” and touches grazingly on the question in a couple of the charts, but did not hit why they took the course in the first place.

      The Yarosh, Guzdial paper is about a situation where the students had to take the course — so it doesn’t count here.

      I don’t think these get at the heart of my question. I do think that the question is a critical one because motivation is one of the big drivers or brakes on any kind of learning.

      Reply
      • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2020 at 10:51 am

        Hi Alan,

        That helps — I have a better idea of what you’re looking for.

        The Biggers paper does get at your question. You don’t leave a subject unless you’re not getting what you came for. Is the Hewner paper getting at what you’re looking for? What do you mean by “identification of cohorts that one would expect”? Andrea Forte and I did some studies comparing Engineering students to non-Engineering students in why they took CS (https://doi.org/10.1109/TE.2004.842924).

        I should have mentioned Colleen Lewis’s recent paper. It’s a large scale survey about motivates students to start and persist in CS: https://computinged.wordpress.com/2019/12/09/who-feels-a-sense-of-belonging-in-cs/

        Have you read Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher’s “Unlocking the Clubhouse”? That does get into why CMU CS students decide to take CS, and how the reasons are different between the male and female students. Here’s a short paper that gets at the heart of the book on this topic: https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/268085.268127

        Betsy DiSalvo does a lot of work in this space (https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=BXEDBDUAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao). I particularly like her paper with Amy Bruckman on moving from students interests to students values (https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/1978542.1978552). I wrote a blog post on her paper showing how students’ preferences for different programming languages were related to their career goals: https://computinged.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/african-american-students-prefer-graphical-or-text-based-programming-languages-depending-on-career-goals/

        Reply
        • 4. alanone1  |  June 17, 2020 at 11:31 am

          Hi Mark

          I’ve read the Margolis book. And have downloaded and printed the other papers for reading later today.

          But most of these seem to be looking at CS majors rather than e.g. all of lower division to see why they might take a “Shakespeare course”. I had minor concentrations in Anthropology and English for curiosity (in fact, I had no career goals at all in college), and took many other courses for curiosity (including one of the few computing courses at CU (a computer architecture course by Nick Metropolis)).

          Are there no curious students any more? Are all of them so worried about getting a job that they are doing career planning as a major part of their thinking in college? So that everything they do has to contribute to their career goals? Hard to believe (I certainly am fighting the idea).

          Reply
          • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2020 at 11:34 am

            Hi Alan,

            That’s a common funding in higher education research. In the 1970’s there was a cross-over. Prior to that, most students said that they went to college to “better themselves.” After that, it was all about gaining economic benefit. College today is critical to accessing a middle class lifestyle.

            Reply
            • 6. alanone1  |  June 17, 2020 at 11:41 am

              Thanks Mark!

              Do you have any references to this? It sounds like the underpinning of what I’m trying to get at here.

              The 1970s was the full swell of the baby boom in college and the change of many colleges into too rapid expansions and into businesses. “Imposters In The Temple” (Martin Anderson — Stanford Hoover Institution) is a biting review of this disaster.

              Reply
              • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2020 at 12:16 pm

                Hi Alan,

                There’s a lot of data in the UCLA HERI Freshman Survey. Here’s the 50 year reflection monograph in 2016: https://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/50YearTrendsMonograph2016.pdf. In 1971, 44.5% of first year students said that they were going to college “to make more money.” In 2015, that was 85.2%.

                Cole’s “The Great American University” includes a good history of the influences on American higher-education from the 1960’s to today.

                Reply
                • 8. alanone1  |  June 17, 2020 at 12:46 pm

                  Thanks Mark

                  I just downloaded both (the Cole book has a Kindle edition, and the Kindle Oasis is the first e reader that really works for fluent readers …)

                  Reply
          • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 17, 2020 at 1:42 pm

            Curiosity is discouraged in public universities by course rationing—only majors in a field can get into a lot of courses (most CS courses, most psychology courses, most biology courses), because of funding cuts and difficulty hiring enough teachers. When senior courses have 400–500 students in them even after restricting to majors, it is hard for curious students to take them.

            I was driven to choose courses in college (undergrad and grad) mainly by curiosity, and I continued to take courses throughout my 38 years as a professor. I expect to continue taking courses after I retire next year. So I too see the loss of curiosity as a driving force in college students as a major loss, but it isn’t all on the students—they are being pushed by expectations and limitations from the colleges (and society in general) to shut off their curiosity.

            Reply
            • 10. alanone1  |  June 17, 2020 at 2:01 pm

              Hi Mark

              Einstein: “Love is a better teacher than duty”.

              There definitely seems to be far too much duty around in every part of the current so-called “educational system”. I don’t see how more than a few could survive this and actually wind up with most of their brains actually functioning and connected to a wide range of ideas …

              Reply
  • 11. Shashi Krishna  |  June 17, 2020 at 9:59 am

    Hi Mark – I am yet to go through the different papers here but the “CS for What” caught my attention. In the K12 setting the big focus, as you know, is the blending of computational models in other subject areas – STEM/STEAM. With the volume of physical computing models available now, the hope is that kids see programming not so much as “that thing I am interested in because” but as another extension to one of their core developmental skills – like reading, math, language etc. In my experience kids who get deeper into programming have this maker mindset from early on. They enjoy being able to create solutions and often go hunting for problems. Being able to make such a mindset more widespread is the goal IMO. So by the time they are ready for university, they would have experienced a rich diet of problem solving and critical thinking processes. The economic reason behind knowing how to code is not lost on them either. They realize the market worth of a graduate who can also program/understand code. Cheers.

    Reply
  • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2020 at 10:52 am

    The discussion is continuing on Monday’s blog post, but I’m copying here my response with more citations:

    Andrea Forte and I did some studies comparing Engineering students to non-Engineering students in why they took CS (https://doi.org/10.1109/TE.2004.842924).

    I should have mentioned Colleen Lewis’s recent paper. It’s a large scale survey about motivates students to start and persist in CS: https://computinged.wordpress.com/2019/12/09/who-feels-a-sense-of-belonging-in-cs/

    Have you read Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher’s “Unlocking the Clubhouse”? That does get into why CMU CS students decide to take CS, and how the reasons are different between the male and female students. Here’s a short paper that gets at the heart of the book on this topic: https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/268085.268127

    Betsy DiSalvo does a lot of work in this space (https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=BXEDBDUAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao). I particularly like her paper with Amy Bruckman on moving from students interests to students values (https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/1978542.1978552). I wrote a blog post on her paper showing how students’ preferences for different programming languages were related to their career goals: https://computinged.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/african-american-students-prefer-graphical-or-text-based-programming-languages-depending-on-career-goals/

    Reply

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