by Jennifer M. Blaney

Within the context of undergraduate computing education, there are several ongoing debates about how to recruit and retain more women. Many instructors are focusing their efforts on gender differences in precollege experiences, while others are looking to growth mindset as a way to level the playing field for women and men once they enter college. In this debate, the term ‘growth mindset’ has become a buzzword, but what does research tell us about the utility and limitations of growth mindset as a framework for broadening women’s participation in computing?

Precollege experiences and the narrative of “catching up”

In efforts to retain women in the computer science major, instructors often struggle to address the pervasive inequities that exist prior to college. Among introductory computing students enrolled at the participating BRAID institutions during the 2015-2016 academic year, students entered the course with varying levels of prior exposure to programming. Nearly half of women reported no prior programming experience, compared to just over a quarter of men. However, in addition to gender differences, it is also important to consider the large variation within the genders. That is, while just under half of women at the BRAID schools had no prior programming experience at the start of their intro course, that means that over half of incoming women did have prior experience with programming. Thus, the notion that women lack programming experience does not apply to the majority of women.

The wide variation in students’ prior programming backgrounds poses challenges for instructors who must teach experienced programmers alongside students without coding experience. Unfortunately, researchers and practitioners sometimes use these varying levels of programming experience to support a narrative that women lack experience and struggle to be successful in the computing classroom, thus perpetuating gender stereotypes about who belongs in computer science. Focusing too much on women’s relative inexperience with programming disregards the talents women bring to computing and contributes to a deficit attitude toward women, or the presumption that women require extra help in order to be successful in the computing classroom.

In the case of women’s representation in computer science, these attitudes inappropriately pass the responsibility of diversifying computing to women, dismiss the knowledge and perspectives women bring to computing, and place unnecessary pressure on students (often women) to “catch up” by gaining programming experience before entering undergraduate computing. For students with the financial means and savvy, this often means taking a summer course in computing before they enter their first year of college. For students without such resources, this might mean spending a semester taking a programming course for non-majors before they can begin taking courses that count toward their major, thus delaying their ability to begin the required coursework for the computer science major. Being required to “catch up” before entering the introductory computing course can be costly, inaccessible, and, in some cases, contribute to a student’s decision to leave computing altogether.

Growth mindset as an alternative?

At some institutions, instructors are reframing the problem, arguing that an extensive programming background should not be a requirement of introductory computing. Many instructors are challenging the longstanding expectation that computing majors must have prior experience. By normalizing students who have no prior programming experience, students with extensive programming backgrounds are the exception and not the rule. These efforts are also part of an ongoing conversation about growth mindset in computing, or the belief that all students have the aptitude to succeed in computing with hard work. Growth mindset research was made popular by psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck and has recently made headlines like “Fostering a growth mindset is key to teaching STEM”, becoming part of the national dialogue on diversity and inclusivity in STEM classrooms. In computer science specifically, researchers and practitioners have looked to growth mindset as a framework for increasing women’s participation in the field by asserting that all students have the capacity to become a computer scientist.

In light of the growing interest in growth mindset as a tool for broadening participation in STEM, many researchers are examining the role of mindset in STEM education and computing in particular. Some of this work has revealed that students with a growth mindset experience a greater sense of belonging and get better grades. In reaction to much of this work, some have suggested that computing instructors can support women by recognizing and emphasizing hard work instead of intelligence, though Carol Dweck recently criticized this approach as an “oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort.”

What the broader literature can teach us about mindset

As researchers and practitioners further explore the role growth mindset might play in reducing the gender gap in computing, we should also situate this work in the larger body of related research, some of which may challenge the common conclusions of growth mindset work. For example, psychological research on attribution theory has shown that women may have a greater tendency to attribute their successes to external forces (e.g., the test was easy), while relying on internal attributions for obstacles they experience (e.g., I’m not smart enough), leading women to question their abilities. This body of research has largely concluded that instructors should help students, particularly women, take internal credit for their successes, a conclusion that is seemingly in contrast with growth mindset’s de-emphasis of internal abilities. Similarly, while growth mindset conceptualizes effort as an expected part of success, other research suggests that women in male-dominated STEM fields may perceive high levels of effort (e.g., studying for many hours) as evidence that they do not naturally “belong.” This work begins to suggest that the growth mindset approach to emphasizing effort may not be enough to dispel stereotypes about who “belongs” in computing.

Finally, a number of education scholars have pointed to limitations of growth mindset, particularly as a tool for addressing inequity. For example, scholar and professor of education, Dr. Tyrone Howard, has examined mindset with consideration of race, poverty, and trauma. Howard has criticized growth mindset and related concepts for ignoring the social and cultural contexts that shape individual experiences. A similar argument may apply to women’s experiences in computing. That is, before we can examine growth mindset as a way to recruit and retain women in computing, we must also address the social structures that exclude women from the field.

Diving into some of the related literatures from other fields begins to reveal the complexities and potential limitations of growth mindset as a way of transforming computer science. Endorsing growth mindsets toward computing by encouraging hard work, emphasizing that anyone can learn to be a programmer, and supporting students who have yet to realize their potential in computer science may be part of building a more inclusive computing classroom. However, without attention to larger structural forces that affect women’s beliefs about their computing abilities, growth mindset alone is unlikely to be enough to transform the undergraduate computing major into an inclusive space for women.  

Jennifer Blaney is a PhD candidate at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information studies and serves as the data manager of the BRAID Research team.