Student Conceptions About the Field of Computer Science

My main current research is about how CS majors think about the field of Computer Science. The question I asked in my doctoral research was basically – “how do students think about CS and do they know enough to make good educational decisions?” The answer turned out the be that students think about CS in a couple of different ways, but enjoyment of classes (and not particular goals) drives them to make educational decisions.

If you want the academic dotted-i’s-and-crossed-t’s version of what I’m doing I have a very exciting dissertation abstract for you to read:

Computer Science is a complex field, and even experts do not always agree how the field should be defined. Though a moderate amount is known about how precollege students think about the field of CS, less is known about how CS majors’ conceptions of the field develop during the undergraduate curriculum. Given the difficulty of understanding CS, how do students make educational decisions like what electives or specializations to pursue?

This work presents a theory of student conceptions of CS, based on 37 interviews with students and student advisers and analyzed with a grounded theory approach. Students tend to have one of three main views about CS: CS as an academic discipline focused on the mathematical study of algorithms, CS as mostly about programming but also incorporating supporting subfields, and CS as a broad discipline with many different (programming and non-programming) subfields. I have also developed and piloted a survey instrument to determine how prevalent each kind of conception is in the undergraduate population.

I also present a theory of student educational decisions in CS. Students do not usually have specific educational goals in CS and instead take an exploratory approach to their classes. Particularly enjoyable or unenjoyable classes cause them to narrow their educational focus. As a result, students do not reason very deeply about the CS content of their classes when they make educational decisions.

This work makes three main contributions: the theory of student conceptions, the theory of student educational decisions, and the preliminary survey instrument for evaluating student conceptions. This work has applications in CS curriculum design as well as for future research in the CS education community.

You can read my dissertation here, if you’re interested.

I’ve published 3 papers on the results, although the stuff presented in the dissertation is a lot more detailed and complete.

  • Hewner, Michael. 2014. How CS Undergraduates Make Course Choices. Proceedings of ICER 2014. In Glasgow, UK. [PDF]
  • Hewner, Michael. 2013. Undergraduate Conceptions of the Field of Computer Science. Proceedings of ICER 2013. In San Diego, CA USA. [PDF]
  • The paper below discusses a preliminary version of my results.
    Hewner, Michael, and Mark Guzdial. 2011. How CS Majors Select a Specialization. Proceedings of ICER 2011. In Providence, Rhode Island USA. [PDF]

What Game Developers Look for in a New Graduate

In the summer of 2009, I interned at a company that develops games for the Playstation 3. I know that CS students are often interested in video game programming, and I wanted to have a few war stories I could talk with them about. I figured that the teachers in the SIGCSE community might also be curious, so I did an interview and survey based study to try and elicit what was important to game companies in a college hire.

  • Hewner, Michael, and Mark Guzdial. 2010. What Game Developers Look for in a New Graduate: Interviews and Surveys at One Game Company. Proceedings of SIGCSE 2010. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA. [PDF]

Understanding Computing Stereotypes with Self-Categorization Theory

Prior to my work on student conceptions of Computer Science, I was very interested in CS student identity (i.e. when and if students think of themselves as computer science people). I found the theory of self categorization theory to be illuminating, especially because it addressed many of the issues that are tied up with CS: stereotypes, high/low status, when people distance themselves from an identity (e.g. “I may be majoring in CS but I don’t really think of my self as a CS kind of person.”), and how identity affects behavior.

I still think this area is extremely interesting, but one of the things I discovered in a subsequent research project is that influencing identity is quite tricky.

  • Hewner, Michael, and Maria Knobelsdorf. 2008. Understanding Computing Stereotypes with Self-Categorization Theory. Proceedings of Koli Calling International Conference on Computer Science Education. In Koli National Park, Finland, November. [PDF]

Attitudes about computing in postsecondary graduates

This was my first study, which set the stage for my later interest in both identity and student conceptions of CS. The goal of the study was to identify whether student’s
college experiences, including interest targeted introductory CS courses, had an aff ect on student attitudes about computing four years later. This project compared essays
from students in different majors about computing; one of the interesting results of this study was how different CS majors’ essays about computing were from the other majors.

  • Hewner, Michael, and Mark Guzdial. 2008. Attitudes about computing in postsecondary graduates. In Proceeding of the fourth international workshop on Computing education research, 71-78. Sydney, Australia: ACM. [PDF]