Our midterms have come and gone at DePaul, and there’s nothing like an exam and the associated midterm grades to cause students to reflection about their courses, and sometimes their careers. This quarter was no exception, and I had one student who was particularly distressed after the midterm. Immediately after taking the exam she headed to one of the staff advisors, telling the advisor that she had failed the exam and was thinking about switching her major. Fortunately, the advisor told my student to contact me and find out how she was doing in the class before making any big decisions. As it turns out the student passed the exam, although not with a stellar grade. In my conversation with her, she told me that she was beginning to think that computer science wasn’t for her. After all, she said, all of the other students in the class understand things so much better than she does. I reassured her that while we do have several people who are outstanding programmers in the class and probably shouldn’t be in an introductory course in the first place, there are also a lot of (silent) people who are on less firm ground. I shared with her that showing off is a common phenomenon in computer science (especially programming) classes, which caused a light to dawn for her. And I told her that her progress in the class was fine as far as I was concerned. She walked away feeling better about things, and she’s remained in the class.
This process of reassuring students that a single less-than-perfect assessment doesn’t mean that they should rule out computer science as a field has become a routine experience for me. Telling students that it’s not easy, that many people struggle, that they won’t get everything right the first (or even 20th) time, is something I do nearly every quarter. And, yes, I know that there are people for whom computer science isn’t the right discipline, and I’m diplomatic but honest with them. But many students who question whether they want to stay are in fact decent students who could contribute to the field. Given that this is a discipline where failure is a part of daily life, the ability to cope with setbacks is important. But it takes confidence in your ability as a computer scientist to not see failure as a personal issue. I sometimes think that my biggest contribution as a teacher is to convince students that what they’re experiencing is completely normal and not a reflection of them as people.