Published: July 31, 2019 By

Research on computer science students has historically focused on four-year, Research I institutions. But new research expands the perspective, providing insights about computer and information sciences students in introductory courses at community colleges, including how best to retain students who have been historically underrepresented in the field.

The findings, published in the ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education in February, draws from surveys of students in introductory computing courses at seven geographically dispersed community colleges nationwide and was produced by researchers Wendy DuBow and Beth Quinn at National Center for Women & Information Technology.

NCWIT is a center within the CU Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science that convenes, equips, and unites change leader organizations to increase the meaningful participation of all women in computing, particularly in terms of innovation and development. The work was funded by a $605,000 National Science Foundation grant that ended in July.

NCWIT Senior Research Scientist DuBow said the team analyzed students’ responses to questions related to student success in computing courses and persistence. The responses were later compared to student demographics and outcomes, including final grades and intent to persist in computing.

Quinn, who is also a NCWIT senior research scientist, noted how this approach is different from many studies that look at differences by gender or race/ethnicity. 

“Our method is a constructs-first approach and helps highlight the diversity within gender and racial or ethnic groups even when there are statistical differences between the groups. We think this way of looking at student differences may result in more equitable and actionable interventions by faculty,” Quinn said.

The team also conducted interviews with faculty and students during the project. The composite student types highlight the challenges of teaching introductory computing courses where student experiences, confidence and impressions of the field can differ dramatically. 

One group the researchers highlighted was, what they termed, the “Inexperienced & Alienated” (InAl) students. The most common type in the study, these students “reported, on average, the lowest previous experience with and interest in programming and other computing activities, and the lowest sense of belonging in computing. They also report less positive beliefs about the field of computing and, perhaps not unsurprisingly, have the lowest average — but not the lowest — expectation of success in the course.” 

The researchers attributed these students lower scores to:

“...A lack of experience with and knowledge of the field. They also report the lowest self-assessment on success-related skills and abilities, probably attributable to their lack of experience. It would be wrong, however, to assume that these students are uneducated or generally lacking in confidence. … Recognizing that a lack of experience with computing may lead to an expectation of failure, instructors can: acknowledge the experience gap and scaffold instruction to bridge it, provide explicit encouragement to individual students, and connect computing content to student interests and their areas of existing expertise.”

“With community colleges, you have students going on to other schooling, some in careers getting a certificate and others just trying the field out. So we wanted to get some good data on what these students are like, what they are contending with and how we can use that context for faculty. When we presented these profiles and ways to support them to faculty at a conference, they were actually really receptive and open to this new way of viewing students," DuBow said.

Educating faculty and sharing information about student barriers to success is a major part of the overall research grant from the NSF. To that end, the NCWIT team will create an online, modular course for all post-secondary faculty that can be done in part or whole to better understand topics such as recruiting and retaining students from underrepresented groups. When it is completed, it will be housed on the NCWIT resources page.

“The modules and sections are standalone, so even if an individual or group of faculty wanted to focus on a particular topic--retention of female students, for example--they could watch videos, read research summaries, and try out strategies specific to that topic area without necessarily doing the rest of the course,” DuBow said. 

While this grant is ending, DuBow said her team will be exploring the qualitative data they collected interviews and using it for larger case studies. She said many of the students are pursuing their passion for computing when they take these intro courses, but what they do in class doesn’t always match with what they actually thought they would be doing.

“The old story about students moving seamlessly from high school to college to the workplace just isn't reflective of a lot of students’ experiences. There are a lot of different paths, and many of them include courses at community colleges,” said DuBow.