Nearly everyone agrees that learning to program is a challenging process. Having taught introductory programming for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned that a positive attitude in the classroom goes a long way toward encouraging students to persevere. The vast majority of suggestions made by students in the classroom can be turned into an opportunity to learn something, even if that something is how to debug bad code. But I’ve recently discovered that praise given to students in private has a nice effect for the class as a whole.
A number of my best students lack confidence. Female students are especially prone to this, but there are always male students who aren’t sure about their abilities. So when they come to visit me during office hours or when I see them before or after class in a more private setting, I try to let them know the things I appreciate about them. Whether it’s the great score they got on the midterm, the way they are willing to answer questions in class, or even their attention to detail in their assignments, I try to let them know that I see the good things they’re doing. And sometimes it pays off in surprising ways.
One of my first-quarter Python students is on a soccer scholarship. Because of the timing of the second-quarter Python class he can’t take it during the spring quarter since he would miss practice. So he needs another programming class to take. The next class recommended is Java, but there are two choices and he needed help deciding between the two. One is good for strong programmers but the other would be fine for anyone, and lacking confidence, he was leaning toward the latter. After a very strong performance on the midterm, I told him he should take the Java class for experienced programmers.
Today was the first class session after I helped him to make the decision, praising his abilities in the process. And today was also the first day he spoke up in class. He made a really strong contribution in a session where a lot of other students were very quiet. His classmates and I were the ones who benefited from the boost to his confidence, and I have hopes that it will last through the rest of the quarter.