One Professor's Approach to Broadening Participation in Computing (Case Study 3)

Increasing Persistence in Computing Through Encouragement

Gloria Townsend, Professor of Computer Science at DePauw University, shares her personal approach to using encouragement:

I believe in the power of encouragement. For the 33 years I have taught Computer Science I, I have written encouraging notes on test papers of the students I thought were good candidates for majoring in computer science. I also urged our laboratory assistants and my male colleagues to encourage women as much as possible and in as many ways as possible. As a consequence, many female students informed my colleagues and me, “I didn’t know I was ‘good’ at computing, until you told me.” Our school’s percent of graduating female seniors (in pure computer science) averages 24% — twice the national rate for women in computer science (11.7% in 2011 – Taulbee Survey). I’ve since learned that my common sense practice of encouragement actually reflects existent research findings. These findings were embodied in a young Microsoft employee’s public remark that she was a computer scientist today because her professor wrote on her exam, “CS major???” I was that professor. She and many other women from our school report that encouragement is the reason they major or majored in computer science. So far, the number of men who echo this sentiment? Zero.

It is a bit sad that conditions reduce women’s expectation of success in computing, but encouragement is a remarkably powerful tool that all instructors can use to overcome those conditions and broaden participation in computing. No other tool is so cost-effective and trouble-free.

 

A SIMPLE PRACTICE

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.



Resources

  • See NCWIT’s Encouragement Works in Academic Settings: Increasing Persistence in Computing Through Encouragement (www.ncwit.org/academicencouragement) for more examples of the role encouragement from teachers, faculty members, and advisors has played in students’ decisions to pursue and persist in computing.
  • See NCWIT’s Top 10 Ways You Can Retain Students in Computing (www.ncwit.org/top10retainstudents) for a brief highlight of the top ten evidence-based ways to retain undergraduate students in computing.

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Author: J. McGrath Cohoon