Since the very beginning of my career, I have taught introductory programming classes. When I was still a graduate student that wasn’t a terribly surprising thing, but as I’ve advanced through the ranks my primary focus on novice programmers has become increasingly unusual.

The choice to teach novice programmers also something that I’ve occasionally had to defend. I often hear the statement “anyone can teach introductory programming classes” which is incredibly demeaning to what I choose to do, although I doubt those who say it mean it that way. But the belief behind that statement is why I’ve had to fight to ensure that fulltime faculty, and talented and motivated ones at that, are the ones put into the introductory programming sequences. It’s been especially difficult as enrollments have increased but the size of the fulltime faculty has stagnated. But I’ve continued the battle because I think it’s the right thing to do.

So it’s especially heartening when I find evidence to support the choices I’m making. A recent article in the Chronicle titled “It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses. Here’s Why.” looks at several studies (although not specifically in computer science) of introductory students and their outcomes.

Among other things it says:

  • “… 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.”
  • [there are] “… 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.”

The issues with adjunct faculty appear to be more about the lack of support provided to them and their lack of advising skills than about their teaching.

The second study cited in the article is particularly troubling for computer science, even though it wasn’t solely focused on CS. As the article says: [the study] “finds that for every 1-percent increase in the share of faculty members who work full time and off the tenure track, students’ chances of graduation drop 1.75 percent. If a college’s professors predominantly work off the tenure track, students are 1.5 percent more likely to change out of a STEM major.” Given the enrollment boom and the hiring crisis in computer science, this worries me a great deal.

But as much as parts of it worry me, the article as a whole encourages me to continue being selective about who teaches the introductory programming classes. As the article notes: “To a student who has never encountered a discipline before, the professor teaching the introductory course is the discipline … That’s one reason Chambliss advocates that colleges put their very best professors in front of as many students as possible, as early as possible. That doesn’t mean every senior professor needs to teach introductory courses, he said — it’s a matter of departments moving a few people around, and rewarding them for their efforts.”

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