Gender-neutral course does the trick

Published Oct 17, 2016

More students have completed an introductory course in programming since it was presented in gender-neutral language. Now the researchers behind the change want to try and reshape other courses at KTH, too.

“We changed the course material to use more inclusive language, so that we could reach out to a wider group of students, and to motivate more people to get through the training,” explains Maria Svedin PhD, who revised the course with Olle Bälter, lecturer in Media and Interactive Design.

The introductory course is an online training package for people who have been accepted to study at KTH. Previously, ten percent fewer women than men were completing the course, so the researchers wanted to investigate why that was and whether those numbers could be boosted.

And, after the course was rewritten to put common examples and texts into gender-neutral language, more women and men completed it. The average completion rate increased by seven percentage points.

Increased motivation to study

Among other things, the revised course material does not use a particular gender in its tasks and examples. Previously, in the old material, a programming task described how a mother was faced with the task of how to dress her son according to the temperature outdoors.

The replacement task now features a student, Kim (whose gender is neutral), who wants to have a program that can take weather data and suggest appropriate clothing for the day, allowing Kim to sleep a little later in the morning.

“It seems that the changes we have made have had positive effects. I think the students feel more comfortable with the training and it has increased their motivation to learn, meaning they are doing much better in their studies than before,” says Olle Bälter.

The students also completed the course faster, although it is still the case that more men are getting through the course than women. But, since the difference between the sexes is not statistically significant, the researchers don’t want to draw any conclusions.

Easy to lose perspective

The course revision has sought to convey a more nuanced and modernised image of programming - a profession requiring both technical and social skills - instead of contributing to the stereotype of programmers as ‘nerds’.

“This is especially important at an academic level, so as not to scare away potential students. Providing a broader description of the programming profession increases the chance of more people being able to see themselves in the role and form their own identity as a programmer,” says Maria Svedin.

The researchers want to try to change more courses at KTH in the same way, to try to attract a wider audience. It is easy to lose perspective and become blind to change if a course has been running the same way for several years,” according to Maria Svedin.

“You need to ask yourself who the students are that you are speaking to. Who are the potential groups, and what is about the course’s design that might deter people from learning?”

Text: Christer Gummeson

The survey covered over 1,000 students. On average, the completion rate rose from 81 to 88 percent for men and women. The research behind the course revision is based on qualitative surveys of course design in higher education. The result of the KTH researchers' work “Gender neutrality improved completion rate for all” has been published in the journal Computer Science Education.

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