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Communications of the ACM


What's Your Placebo?

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A tale of woe: Our institution, like many others, has a high attrition rate in introductory computer science (CS1), our first programming class for majors. We often use the term "DWF rate," as those students who earn Ds or Fs, or who withdraw from the course are ineligible to continue further in taking other CS classes as part of the major. Beyond the DWF rate, students who earn Cs in their CS1 course, while technically allowed to continue taking CS classes, tend to struggle in those later classes. We do offer a pre-CS1 programming class to help students who are not ready to jump directly into CS1. Many researchers have shown students with prior programming experience tend to do better in the initial CS1 course. We have published research on this,3 as have many others.

We were tasked with developing an assessment our department could use to recommend whether students should sign up for our pre-CS1 course or our CS1 course. We decided to use an instrument that combined two recently validated instruments that measured a student's programming ability. One was a computing concepts inventory1 and the second was a programming comprehension inventory.4


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