Grit

I’m following a thread on SIGCSE with some interest: “Non-PL-Based CS Placement Exams”. Select quotes:

  • Haven’t we agreed as a community that “aptitude” is a pernicious and exclusionary construct? … prior experience is the most important predictor of success.
    • N.B. Prior experience certainly affects research readiness, look at the people who end up doing FP research.
  • We have a good bit of evidence that there are not innate differences between CS students. Instead, it’s a matter of preparation and wealth, …
    • N.B. Innate, perhaps not, but circumstances create different people. More thoughts on this below.
  • students who had little or no prior experience were most likely to [fail, but] … half of all students who earned As were also in the low prior experience cohort
    • N.B. I strongly believe that with true effort, anyone can eventually do well, so I suppose I agree.
  • the primary reason for so many low grades is that students did not submit the programming assignments … (My sense is that these students also frequently missed class and did not come to the TA’s or my office hours.)
    • N.B. Matches my experience TAing and as a student here to a T. Dilligence might not get A’s, but it does earn B’s.
  • but I find it implausible that there are no innate differences between the abilities of different people, when it comes to CS or any other endeavor in life.
    • N.B. I think the salient question is whether the innate difference is significant enough to matter on its own. My gut feeling is no, in that effort readily substitutes for ability.
  • Worse yet, any telegraphing of the notion that students have a “fixed ability” undermines attempts to bring the less experienced players up to a level playing field.
    • N.B. I feel this POV is entrenched in Singaporean high school culture, e.g. with respect to Olympiad.
  • At CMU students with no programming experience took about 1.5-2 years to reach the same level of performance (gradewise) as students entering with programing experience.
    • N.B. Anecdotally, I felt this way about the theory in our program. I’ve only just started to feel confident about my ability to do anything remotely theoretical – CDM helped.
  • 8-10 years ago, the students entering CS were mainly those who enjoyed STEM-like subjects, and if they did poorly in CS1/2 they would quickly change majors. These days, many students come into CS because it promises a 6-figure salary upon graduation.
    • N.B. Plenty of those paycheck people around here.

The conversation is ongoing and fascinating, possibly the most interesting one that I’ve read on SIGCSE’s mailing list this year. Usually you only get blogspam on what mouse to use or another faculty position opening up at XYZ.


I recently had a chat with someone about their motivations for attending college. In attitude and perseverance, I’ve noticed a distinction between those who can afford to fail and those who cannot, with afford being used in the literal and metaphorical sense.

The former are usually the ones that you see embracing the undisciplined “college experience” life; parties and extracurriculars take priority over academics, assignment deadlines are suggestions, and deeply ingrained is the belief that someone will bail them out – their future self will suddenly do better, or if they fail their parents will pay for another semester, no big deal. I used to notice a couple of these every semester when I TA’d, and invariably they would underperform.

Curiously, most of the latter that I’ve seen outside of international country-sponsored scholars are athletes, but I suppose it makes sense. Hard to be a good athlete without discipline. yet to develop a discipline that lets me match their crazy routines…

I posit that this is the hidden variable that significantly explains why some students without prior experience rise to the challenge, and yet some do not. Grit, and the difference between relying on others and having others rely on you. Family sponsored vs sponsoring family, in a sense.

I do believe that people inherently have potential, though the use or waste of it is up to them – predictively, one semester of bad grades doesn’t mean anything, consistent semesters of bad grades means a lot. Though I suppose this means I am in favor of the “rising grades” heuristic for admissions.


Sparring is inherently difficult and if the only way to improve to increase my time on task, then increasing the time spent getting beaten up is incredibly discouraging. I assume a similar experience occurs with Intro to CS students, having to spend 75% of the weekly allocated time on task debugging. Like with sparring, students are discouraged and feel like failures. Why would I spend more time on something I’m bad at and have negative experiences whenever I try? I’m not saying “grit” or perseveration isn’t necessary, but you can’t teach it if the students don’t stick around.

This quote, I’m a little more iffy about.

When I step into a classroom in a teaching position, my goal is to teach everyone who wants to learn. If you want more examples, you get more examples. If you want more motivation behind a topic, you get more motivation. If you want extra time or individual tutoring, you get extra time or individual tutoring.

But if you don’t show up or don’t want to learn – there are thousands of people who would have given anything to be in your place. A shot at a better future, a way to climb the social mobility ladder. Is it more ethical to use my time to reach them or to reach you?


The SIGCSE thread further discusses the streaming and splitting of introductory courses. I feel that similar conversations have and will continue to be held regarding CMU’s CS core. It will be interesting to see how it evolves.


They say you are the company you keep. Well, then.

Written on January 20, 2019