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Why Should I Care? Student Motivation In An Introductory Programming Course

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

FPD8 -- Systems, Nanotechnology & Programming

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1450.1 - 11.1450.19



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Paper Authors


Helen Burn University of Michigan

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Helen Burn is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. She holds a master's degree in mathematics and focuses her work on undergraduate mathematics and science learning and teaching.

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James Holloway University of Michigan

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James Paul Holloway is Professor of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences at the
University of Michigan. His technical research is in the area of computational kinetic
theory, especially neutron and gamma ray transport theory in nuclear reactor analysis
and in inverse problems related to neutron and gamma radiation, and in nonlinear dynamics and control. He has served as course coordinator for the College of Engineering's first year course, Engr 101, Introduction to Computers and Programming, since its creation in 1997.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Why Should I Care? Student Motivation in an Introductory Programming Course


This study builds on research conducted by the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan in collaboration with the School of Education, the Minority Engineering Program Office, and industrial supporters, which exposed problems with student motivation in a required, first-year course in computing and programming. This paper describes the nature of an instructional intervention designed by the lead instructor for the course aimed to increase students’ perception that computer programming and algorithmic thinking are (1) important and (2) useful to engineering majors. The conceptual framework for the study derives from Wigfield and Eccles’10 expectancy/value model of student motivation. Multiple regression analysis of student survey responses revealed that students in the treatment group were more likely than those in a comparable, untreated, group to believe it is important that engineering majors learn to program, which suggests that instructors can directly influence student motivation. The treatment group was no more likely than the comparison group to believe that the ideas from the course would be useful in their future careers. This finding is partly attributable to our inability to control for the nature of the weekly assignments in the untreated group, which confounded our ability to fully evaluate the effect of the intervention on students’ perception of the usefulness of the course. Gender, race/ethnicity, and prior programming experience were not significant predictors of perceptions of importance or usefulness. Student interest in the weekly programming assignments was the biggest predictor of agreeing that the course was important and useful, followed by a student’s self-reported proficiency in programming. This result provides empirical evidence of the potential benefit of placing programming assignments in the context of technology applied to the improvement of society, to current events, or to technologies with which the students are familiar. An analysis of historical course grades—acknowledging the limitations of doing so—revealed that the gap between males and females and between minority and majority students narrowed during the semester of the intervention compared with a year earlier. Future interventions to bolster student motivation should include measures aimed specifically at improving programming proficiency, because our model predicts that lower levels of programming proficiency might cancel out the positive effect of creating interesting contexts for the weekly assignments as well as the positive benefits of directly addressing with students the importance of programming to engineering majors.


The College of Engineering at the University of Michigan enrolls about 1200 new students each Fall and requires them to take several courses during their first year. Among the required courses is Engineering 101: Introduction to Computers and Programming [Engin 101]. The core objectives of Engin 101 are to develop students’ open-ended thinking skills and to enhance problem-solving skills. These skills are developed as students create and write programs using C++ and MATLAB. The course provides students with an opportunity to practice an engineering problem solving process by starting from an open problem statement, developing an understanding of the requirements of the problem and the physics or mathematics behind it,

Burn, H., & Holloway, J. (2006, June), Why Should I Care? Student Motivation In An Introductory Programming Course Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--926

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