Two insights on teaching computer programming

Kathi Fisler kfisler at
Fri Jan 6 15:50:17 EST 2006

David Klappholz wrote:

> PS Do you have any thoughts on possible connections between HtDP and 
> female retention?

We have anecdotal evidence that HtDP helps engage and retain female
students.  HtDP has been used at several universities and roughly 100
high schools (nationwide and internationally).  Several teachers have
observed benefits for females at both levels.  The evidence includes
higher percentages of females both starting and completing HtDP-based
courses, as well as reports of female students having more positive
experiences in programming courses (both compared to students in years
past at the same schools).  Only one high school teacher that I know
of had the resources to run parallel courses in the same year for
comparison. one C++ and one HtDP.  Females were far more satisfied
with HtDP; the males split fairly evenly.  We noticed significant
increases in the percentage of females in intro programming while
using HtDP at Rice (I believe from roughly 10-15% per class to
25-30%), and most of those were non-majors.

We've attributed our observations to several factors: 
  1. teaching Scheme has a leveling effect between experienced and
  novice programmers (thereby increasing confidence of novice

  2. the lack of language overhead lets us get to interesting and
  realistic problems within a semester (reduces the "programming as
  tinkering" feel)

  3. the DrScheme programming environment is designed to support
  beginning programming students.

  4. HtDP presents a step-by-step recipe for thinking through programs
  that help students decompose problems.  Having a set of concrete
  guidelines to fall back on seems to appeal to many female students
  (in part because the hacker culture suggests that you either "get
  it" or not while the females trying CS are fairly methodical--that's
  obviously a generalization though).

The first clearly applies to lots of approaches.  The latter items are
more particular to the HtDP approach, particularly with how they
integrate with one another.

Unfortunately, the small number of female students taking CS courses
at all makes a statistically significant study hard to design,
especially at the high school level where many current HtDP adopters
teach.  A few of our teachers work at the middle school level and
report positive impacts there, but I don't have statistics on that.


Kathi Fisler, Assistant Professor	Department of Computer Science        	Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Phone: 508-831-5118            		100 Institute Road
Fax: 508-831-5776                	Worcester, MA 01609-2280

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