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Courting the Uncommitted: A Mixed-Methods Study of Undecided Students in Introductory Computer Science Courses

  • Author(s): Lehman, Kathleen Joelle
  • Advisor(s): Sax, Linda J
  • et al.
Abstract

In the United States, there has been an increased focus on attracting and retaining more and diverse college students to computing majors to ensure that there is a trained workforce to fulfill jobs in the growing tech sector as well as to increase the representation of women and people of color in the computing industry. Some have suggested that computer science departments might recruit more diverse students to computing majors from the pool of undecided students on their campuses, particularly those who may be enrolled in introductory CS courses.

The purpose of this study was to examine the experiences of undecided students enrolled in an introductory CS course that might encourage or dissuade them from pursuing a computing major. Drawing from career theory, science identity theory, and the extant literature, this study took a mixed-methods approach to develop a holistic picture of the experiences of undecided students who enroll in introductory CS courses. Specifically, this study used a national sample of students surveyed as part of the BRAID Research Project to conduct descriptive analyses and a blocked logistic regression. These analyses explored the characteristics of undecided students enrolled in introductory CS, their perceptions of the climate in the course, and the factors that predicted their decision to choose a computing major at the end of the course. Across all analyses, differences were examined by race and gender. Additionally, the study relied on interview data from undecided students who enrolled in introductory computing courses. Taking a phenomenological approach, the qualitative aspect of this study considers why undecided students enroll in introductory CS and how their experiences in the course inform their major choice decision.

The findings from this study suggest that many undecided students who enroll in an introductory CS course will choose a computing major by the end of that course. Some aspects of their course experiences, particularly the extent to which undecided students feel supported by computing peers, play a role in their decision to pursue a computing major. Further, the findings from this study suggest that undecided students are more likely to be women than CS majors who enroll in introductory CS courses, making undecided students a good pool from which to recruit women to computing. However, once enrolled in the course, undecided students’ gender and racial/ethnic backgrounds play a minimal role in their decision to pursue computing. In light of these findings, the study provides implications for theory, CS departments, and CS introductory course instructors, as well as suggestions for future research.

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