“When I grow up I want to become a programmer!”, Elli (11) – How?!

(the answer is at the end of the post)

Computer Science is not the typical profession of choice for elementary school students. This might be because most children at this age do not yet understand what computer science is. This is about to change, since an increasing number of countries is currently enriching their elementary school education with computing and programming courses. But, what will make those young students perform well in programming classes? And what will their view of programming as a career path be after they have followed their first programming course?

Finding out

To answer our questions, with Felienne Hermans we run experimental programming courses, teaching Scratch to four groups of 8 to 12 year-old students of two elementary schools in the Netherlands. We gave a total of eight lessons to each group, following the lesson plan of the Scratch MOOC on edX. During the lessons, we measured factors that have been shown to affect adult, university-level students. Those factors include:

  • Self-efficacy, or the students’ beliefs in their abilities. In education research, self-efficacy is recognized as one of the most important factors related to learning performance, and has been found to affect the choice of college major. (“I will become what I am good at.”)
  • Extrinsic (external) motivation, or motivation inspired by influences outside of the individual (for example, from other people). (“I will choose what is trendy/what my peers choose.”)
  • Intrinsic (internal) motivation, or motivation that comes from within the individual as a self-desire to learn. (“I will choose it because I like it.”)
  • The stereotypes that students assume for computer scientists, and their fit within those. We examined four stereotypical traits that have been found to apply to computer scientists [17]: Singularly focused, indicating that computer science requires an obsession with it, asocial, indicating that computer scientists have limited social skills, competitive, and male. (“I will choose what my personality fits in.”)
  • The characteristics of the students, including their age, gender and programming experience prior to the course.


We found that having previous programming experience was a strong factor, correlated to extrinsic motivation, self-efficacy and CS career orientation. While it is known that prior programming experience has a  strong effect on the performance of university-level students, in our study there is an additional reason for this observation: that programming experience before our experimental course could have been obtained only through home-based or extra-curricular activities. Therefore, having prior programming experience indicates that the students had sought to learn programming themselves, or were encouraged by their environment towards programming, and this proved to give them a significant head start.

Our study highlighted gender differences, with the CS career orientation of the girls being significantly correlated with their self-efficacy, an effect which was not as strong for boys.

We also found that students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important factors, strongly correlated with their self-efficacy and, for the case of intrinsic motivation, their inclination towards a CS career.

Equally interesting is what we did not observe: course performance and stereotypical beliefs for computer scientists had no significant effect on CS career orientation. Students actually appeared unaffected by the four stereotypical traits that we studied. Even the Male trait was not assumed, with students favoring neutral or their own gender as typical for the profession. This might be attributed to their age; we could assume that they are yet too young to believe anything in particular about stereotypical traits of computer scientists. It also leaves us hopeful for the future of women in CS.

The answer

To sum up, Elli(11), probably did not wait for school to teach her programming, she had started already by herself. She likes the challenges of programming and she believes that she is good at it. Also, she has not watched movies about programmers yet, and she better leave it for after she chooses college major.

Are you interested to know more? Read our paper or come see us present it at SIGCSE 2019.