TITLE: Some Thoughts on How to Increase CS Enrollments AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 16, 2007 6:45 AM DESC: ----- BODY: The latest issue of Communications of the ACM (Volume 50, Number 10, pages 67-71) contains an article by Asli Yagmur Akbulut and Clayton Arlen Looney called Inspiring Students to Pursue Computing Degrees. With that title, how could I not jump to it and read it immediately? Most of the paper describes a survey of the sort that business professors love to do but which I find quite dull. Still, both the ideas that motivate the survey and the recommendations the authors make at the end are worth thinking about. First, Akbulut and Looney base their research on a model derived from social cognitive theory called the Major Choice Goals Model. In this model, a person's choice goal (such as the choice to major in computing) is influenced by her interest in the area, the rewards she expects to receive as a result of the choice, and her belief that she can succeed in the area, which is termed self-efficacy. Interest itself is influenced by expected rewards and self-efficacy, and expected rewards are influenced by self-efficacy.
Major Choice Goals Model
Their survey of business majors in an introductory business computing course found that choice goals were determined primarily by interest, and that the the other links in the model also correlated significantly. If their findings generalize, then... I don't suppose that these results are all that earth-shaking, but they do give us clues on where we might best focus our efforts to recruit more majors. First, we need to foster "a robust sense of self-efficacy" in potential students. This is most effective when we work with people who have little or no direct experience. We should strive to help these folks have successful, positive first experiences. When we encounter people who have had bad past experiences with computing, we need to work extra hard to overcome these with positive exposure. Second, we need to enhance students' outcome expectations in a broader set of outcomes than just the lure of high salaries and plentiful jobs. Most of us have been looking for opportunities to share salary and employment data with students. But outcome expectations seem to affect a student's choice of majoring in computing mostly through increased interest in the discipline, and financial reward is only one, rather narrow, avenue to interest. We should communicate as many different kinds of rewards as possible, via as many different routes as possible, including different kinds of people who have reaped these benefits such as peer groups, alumni, and various IT professionals. Third, we can seek to increase interest more directly. Again, this is something that most people in CS and IT have already been doing. I think the value Akbulut and Looney add here is in looking to the learning literature for influences on interest. These include the effective use of "novelty, complexity, conflict, and uncertainty". They remind us that "As technologies continue to rapidly evolve, it is important to deliver course content that is fresh, current, and aligned with students' interests". Our students are looking for ideas that they can apply to their own experiences and to open problems in the world. The authors also make a suggestion that is controversial with many CS faculty but basic knowledge to others: In order to build self-efficacy and interest in students, we need to be sure that
... the most appropriate faculty are assigned to introductory computing courses. Instructors who are personable, fair, innovative, engaging, and can serve as role models would be more likely to attract larger pools of students.
This isn't pandering; it is simply how the world works. As someone who now has a role in assigning faculty to teach courses, I know that this can be a difficult task, both in making the choices and in working with faculty who would prefer different assignments. When I first dug into the paper, I had some reservations. I'm not a big fan of this kind of research, because it seems too contingent on too many external factors to be convincing on its own. This particular study looked at business students and a very soft sort of computing course (Introduction to Information Systems) that all business students have to take at many universities. Do the findings apply to CS students more generally, or students who might be interested in a more technical sense of computing? In the end, though, this paper gave me a different spin on a couple of issues with which we have been grappling, in particular on students' sense that they can succeed in computing and on the indirect relationship between expected rewards and choice of major. This perspective gives me something useful to work with. -----