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Increasing uptake of GCSE computing for female pupils: What does the research say?

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The data is clear – diverse teams perform best in all industries including tech. However, the pipeline of female computer scientists is not meeting demand for a more diverse workforce. In 2019, only 19% of jobs in tech were filled by women according to a report by women in Technology. Despite the increase in number of pupils taking GCSE Computer Science last year, we saw another drop in the number of girls choosing to study the subject . Only 20.6% of the overall entrants in GCSE computing in 2021 were female.

The same gender gap is apparent at A level too. Only 2,031 females took the Computing A-level in the summer of 2021, compared with 11,798 boys.

So, why are so few girls choosing to take the GCSE and what can we as teachers do to address the balance?

In this blog, we’ll look at three different parts to this discussion. First, we’ll look at the research from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, then we’ll look at what teachers say. Finally, we’ll explore what we can do about it!

What does the research say?

Katharine Childs (Raspberry Pi Foundation, UK) wrote a report summarising the key factors that impact gender balance in computing and reviewing the key research into this area. She identified key 4 factors that influence girls’ uptake in computing:

  1. Attitudes
  2. Sense of belonging
  3. Relevance
  4. Learning together

Let’s take a look at what the research has said

Attitudes

Many studies have identified gender differences between learners in their attitudes towards computing. When I was in the classroom, I heard pupils say “girls don’t do computing”! But where do these attitudes come from?

Expectancy-value theory (Eccles et al., 1998) suggests that subject choice and career goals are affected by their perceptions of what their parents and society think. Both expectancy-value theory and social cognitive career theory (Lent et al., 2008) also highlight the role of a student’s expectations of success or ‘self-efficacy’ (Bandura, 1999) on their persistence in computing: students are more likely to choose computing if they believe they will succeed and if they have a sense of support from those around them (Lent et al.2008).

Goode et al. (2018) examined similar connections with high school computer science pupils (aged 14 to 18). They suggested that female students experienced an number of negative experiences in computing classes. They cited examples such as lack of contextual information to link computing to the real world and pedagogy without a higher order thinking focus which had affected girls’ attitudes towards computing in an unfavourable way.

Sense of belonging

Evidence suggests that a sense of belonging develops from both the extent to which girls feel that they fit into the community and how they perceive that they are valued and accepted by other members of the community (Good et al., 2012).

Research suggests that the most important factor for girls taking GCSE computing is the feeling of being related to others, and that a sense of belonging was a significant predictor of their motivation.

This need for a sense of belonging is a vicious cycle as girls do not see themselves represented then they are not motivated to study the subject and therefore there are no role models for the next cohort.

To try and break this cycle, you can bring more female role models into the classroom from industry or previous cohorts to increase that sense of belonging.

There is a lot of research into the type of role model we should use in the classroom which is discussed in the report.

Relevance

Computer Science can be seen as a very abstract concept – especially when teaching programming. The amount that pupils need to learn about programming concepts to efficiently write code can make it feel so far removed from the application.

However, Fisher and Margolis (2003) identified that the contexts in which computer science skills can be used are important for female students. Female undergraduates were much more likely to identify links between their learning and other disciplines, whereas male students were more invested in the value of computer science as a subject in
itself.

Four principles were proposed by Guzdial and Tew (2006) to contextualise computing so that students could connect their learning to their prior experiences and future expectations:

  1. Learning activities were aligned with real world scenarios
  2. Topics were aligned with students’ own interests
  3. Assessments were aligned with the material which had been taught
  4. The methods of inquiry used in the classroom were aligned with professional standards in the workplace

They applied these principles to two introductory programming modules for undergraduates and found that 51% of the students were female.

Learning together

An emerging body of evidence suggests that collaborative teaching approaches can engage more girls with computing.

Werner et al. (2004) advocated for the use of pair programming in introductory university programming courses based on their findings that collaborative work had a positive impact on female students’ perceptions of computing as a subject for further study. Pair programming has been shown to improve student confidence and have a positive impact on student retention in computing and has also demonstrated that the quality of programs written in pairs is significantly higher than those written individually in an introductory undergraduate course (McDowell et al., 2006).

Read more about pair programming here.

Summary

The research suggests that:

  • Pupils don’t pick computing if they do not feel like they are going to be successful in the subject.
  • Girls need to see other girls doing computing to feel a sense of belonging to the subject.
  • Computing lessons need to be less abstract, include more real-world scenarios and have topics aligned to their interests to engage girls.
  • Using collaborative teaching approaches such as pair programming increases the quality of work produced and improve pupils’ confidence

So, that’s a little summary of the research into this area, but what do the teachers say works in their classrooms? And how can you apply this to your classroom?

Part 2 of this blog series covers this topic, so have a read and let me know what you think!


 

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One response to “Increasing uptake of GCSE computing for female pupils: What does the research say?”

  1. […] on the research shared in my previous blog post on how to increase the uptake of GCSE computing for female pupils, I wanted to share the opinions […]

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