Encouragement Works in Academic Settings (Case Study 1)

Increasing Persistence in Computing Through Encouragement

A faculty member described how simple it is for him to encourage his students: “It just takes me going to them and saying, ‘You do better than you think you do, so keep trying.’” This positive message from someone who should know what it takes to succeed in computing persuades his students to keep trying.

Simple though encouragement is, fewer than half of the faculty members in the average computer science department in the United States say they do it. These faculty members may mistakenly perceive expressions of self-doubt as lack of commitment or ability. These expressions of uncertainty are more likely to come from women as a consequence of society-wide stereotypes that undermine belief in women’s technical competence. When faculty members fail to encourage these women, computing loses students who otherwise would have succeeded.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s first woman engineer, told how encouragement contributed to her success. She described the boost she got as a Stanford University student. “[Computer-science professor] Eric Roberts, who was my mentor all through Stanford, really reached out to me and said, “You know what? You’re really good at this. You could go far in this.” As a freshman, she had taken a computer science course to fill a prerequisite and found it intellectually interesting. Thanks to Roberts, she felt “a huge amount of support,” which helped her go from never having owned a computer before college to a senior executive at Google.

Another example of how encouragement works comes from focus groups with students at 16 computer science departments in 2001. Most of the students reported a variety of reasons for their choice of a computer science major, with encouragement from parents or teachers being a common theme. One student remembered being initially resistant when her high school AP computer science teacher told her that she should pursue the major in college: “I completely disagreed with him, told him that I didn’t want to do it.” But those encouraging words from her teacher had planted a seed, and eventually the student “realize[d] that [she] was actually really good” at computing and that she would find the major “really, really fun.” Other women also reported that having their faculty advisors say, “Just keep at it. You can do it,” helped them persist when they had self-doubt.



Encouraging persistence is a simple practice that requires no additional resources. It is typically an element of mentoring, but there is no reason to restrict encouragement to the context of a mentoring relationship. Opportunities for offering encouragement abound during the normal course of daily interaction. It requires only a commitment to cultivating outstanding performance through positive communication.

Encouragement is essential to retention when women express doubts about whether they belong in computing. At this point, the instructor’s response can make the difference between persistence and departure. Simply accepting the woman’s doubts at face value can facilitate her departure. In contrast, a sincere encouraging response that expresses confidence in the student’s ability to succeed and that recommends persistence can facilitate retention.


  • Lyons, D. (2010, December 22). Marissa Mayer. Newsweek.

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Author: J. McGrath Cohoon