My teaching for the past decade (or more) has primarily focused on introductory programming classes. And as much as I didn’t love programming as a student, I adore teaching people how to program. Yes, it can be frustrating in some cases, but in a lot of cases it’s a joy to see the moment (or moments) when people finally understand how to tackle and solve a problem using a programming language.
What I love a lot less is the feedback that I get from my colleagues about students coming out of the introductory courses. Yes, I know that students can appear to do well in one class and move into the follow-on class and do poorly, seeming to not understand basics that they should have learned in the previous class. After all, I teach the second-quarter Python class, so I’ve seen my own first-quarter Python students do it. And, yes, in an ideal world this wouldn’t happen. But, let’s face it: it does. There are no easy solutions to information retention or worse to knowledge transfer. And instructors and students can do everything right and still have bad outcomes. But knowing all of that doesn’t make it any easier to hear your colleagues complain about how horrible your former students are at programming or problem solving. And it only gets more aggravating when the situation transforms into an indictment of student ability as a whole.
But there are those rare moments when computing education research comes to the rescue, as a recent paper presented at SIGCSE did for me this week. In a provocatively (and yet aptly) named article, two researchers at Stanford tackled an issue that appeared on the agenda for a meeting this Friday. In the article As CS Enrollments Grow, Are We Attracting Weaker Students? an 8-year study of student assignment submissions found that the quality of students during the most recent enrollment boom remained remarkably stable, something that contradicts the perception of many computing educators. They then went on to explain how such a situation might occur: with growing enrollments, the number (but not the percentage) of weaker students grows, and the weaker students are the ones who demand the majority of our time and attention. So it feels like the population is less prepared, even if the statistical analysis doesn’t support that belief. And, yes, not many of us are at institutions like Stanford, so our results may vary. But the authors made a point of suggesting during their talk in Memphis that others try to replicate their work to determine if the situation is the same at other institutions.
Being able to share that article in advance of the meeting this Friday made me very happy. I can’t wait to see how many of my colleagues read it.