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Motivation, Persistence and Success in Computer Science: What Can Computer Science Seniors Tell Us?

Student Researchers:


Belinda Chang,
Catherine Fan



Carol Frieze



Carnegie Mellon University





This CREU study assessed some of the changes in the culture of computing at Carnegie Mellon University since 1999, specifically looking at gender similarities and differences as they relate to perceived student motivation, persistence, and confidence levels among undergraduates in the computer science (CS) major.

The initial goals of this project were to learn more about factors affecting student motivation and persistence, to compare and update findings, and to make recommendations to enhance the success of students in the CS major at Carnegie Mellon. We decided to add an examination of perceived confidence levels to our initial goals as confidence seemed to be a major factor affecting persistence and motivation.

Analysis and results are based on data from three sources: interview transcripts from the graduating class of 2004, surveys of the current student body, and surveys of students who transferred out of computer science.

For the purpose of this brief report we have focused mainly on discussing gender similarities as these findings suggest new evidence for dispelling some computer science and gender myths. We also believe that at Carnegie Mellon, where we have a near critical mass of women in the CS major, the gender divide is becoming much less apparent. Indeed we believe we can offer new perspectives often not found in departments where there are very few women students.


Background reading of gender and computer science studies done at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere to establish a baseline of understanding of the areas under investigation
Qualitative and quantitative analysis of interview transcripts from 2004 (randomly pooled cohort of 22 men and 22 women and 5 active members of Women@SCS)
Randomly pooled current students from 2005-2008 CS classes 136 total (106 men, 30 women)
Transfer Surveys: 4 women and 3 men out of 42 students who transferred out of Computer Science between fall 2001 and fall 2004.
Examined key questions regarding motivation, persistence and confidence levels.

Findings: Motivation & Persistence

Men and women expressed very similar factors leading to their decision to major in computer science, the main one being an interest in computing. They are also very similar in liking the breadth and versatility of computer science. We found strong gender similarities in the work ethic each gender shows to succeed as a computer science major, men and women are both driven by the pride and attempts to prove their capabilities of mastering challenging problems in computer science. Both genders show a high motivation to learn the material, which in turn results in a higher level of persistence among these students.

Women cited a broad range of factors, with the obligation to finish as the primary reason, for staying in the major, while men were more likely to point to interest in computer science itself as the key factor that kept them from transferring out.

Findings: Confidence Levels

We were very encouraged to find that the majority of women were now reporting feeling increased confidence levels. (Although more men than women reported feeling high confidence.) When asked about confidence in specific skills, such as programming abilities, women and men were reporting an almost identical sense of confidence (in fact women were more confident than men although the difference was not significant).

Gender similarities appeared in students sense of success in the CS program and regarding their sense of fitting in both academically and socially in the CS environment (after their first year).

Some Conclusions:

While some gender differences were still evident (and this is not surprising) our findings revealed some strong gender similarities among men and women, challenging the notion of a strong gender divide in how undergraduates relate to computer science. We suspect that as the gender balance has improved at Carnegie Mellon, and as more opportunities have been made available to them through the CS department and organizations like Women@SCS, women are feeling more comfortable and more confident that they can persist and succeed in computer science.

Recommendations (based on factors contributing to persistence, motivation and confidence levels):

Our recommendations target women students in particular as the issue of attracting and retaining women in computer science continues to be a national concern. However, we suggest that these recommendations could enhance the overall success of all undergraduate students. (Note: Some of these recommendations are already in place, in which case we recommend be continued.)

Encourage students to get involved with undergraduate research
Lunch and Learn sessions to expose students to research and industry opportunities to broaden students views of computer science.
Encourage students to take advantage of academic and professional resources
Set up formal and informal networking opportunities for students to interact with role models such as upperclassmen, graduate students, faculty, alumnae and industry professionals to provide encouragement and increase personal connections
Provide more professional development opportunities such as interview skills and practice sessions
Set up more formal study groups to encourage collaboration and to target those courses that students describe as intimidating

Publications and Dissemination:

The CREU study was highlighted at Carnegie Mellons Meeting of the Minds 2005 when students displayed their research in poster format to the entire campus community.

Our CREU main page:

The posters can be seen in pdf format at:

Back to 2004-2005 Project Listing

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