Hi John,
I am a high school teacher who is teaching computer science for the first time at our school. I feel like students are afraid to take my class! What can I do to improve enrollment in CS?
First Timer

Dear First Timer,

The first thing you must do to grow your program is to recruit, recruit, and recruit some more.  Ask the counselors to help. They are your best friend in this effort!  Believe me, I know, because I had great success when the counselors were on my side. They know the students who have the aptitude for this class, and are a great ally to have and use.

Computer science is so new, and to many students in your school, very intimidating.  You must convince them that they can do it, that it will be fun, and that you will help them, every step of the way.

How to recruit? Here are some strategies that worked for me:

  • Ask your school’s counselor or registrar for a list of the students in the advanced math tracks, even middle school students who are taking algebra or geometry.  I always worked hard to get freshmen and sophomores into my classes…the sooner, the better.  Once they reach their junior or senior years, they are so busy thinking about other things (college, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc) that it is harder to get them going with your class.
  • Work with your campus administration to have computer science offer an extra grade incentive, increasing the earned grade points for the course, so that there will be a motivation for the students to attempt this difficult course of study.
  • Consider offering a guarantee of no less than a B (85%) if the student misses no assignments or deadlines and does their best on every task you ask them to do.
  • Compose and send a formal letter to each student, inviting them to consider taking computer science, listing the reasons why, which might include:
    • Computer Science teaches you improved thinking skills that can apply to all aspects of your learning
    • CS looks great on your transcript
    • CS provides increased grade points for your GPA
    • It provides a challenge to learn something new and fun
  • Follow up the letter with direct contact with each student, either by individual appointments through the counselor’s office, or perhaps inviting them to an informative meeting in your classroom to discuss the idea in person and provide them the opportunity to ask questions.

Once you have them in your class, you must make it fun and interesting! Be creative in the activities and labs you plan. Once the word gets out that your class is a great learning environment, doing some really cool fun stuff, the students will sign up, and they will arrive early each day, ready to work!

Most importantly, be flexible and liberal with your grading policy.  Work as hard as you can to ensure that each student gets good grades in your class.  Of course, insist on quality and original work, but make it doable for the students to get those high grades, especially since this class is most likely an elective, and there is a good chance that the top students in your school are going to be in your class, you know the ones, always concerned about protecting their GPA.  To keep them there, you must make it worth their while with the grading opportunities.

I built two programs using these strategies, both achieving state and national championship success.  My students who went on to college CS were very successful there, and on into the CS world.  Those who chose a non-CS path beyond high school or college found the knowledge and thinking skills they gained from high school CS invaluable as they pursued other courses of study and careers.

You can do this!  It takes time, effort, and dedication on your part, but if you are serious about growing a CS program, all of this work will pay off. Good luck!

Together, WeTeach_CS!

John Owen


About Ask John

As he always emphasizes in his classes, courses, and workshops, there is no such thing as a stupid question, except for the one you do not ask. John Owen has taught high school Computer Science very successfully for many years, and has a team of CS colleagues who are ready and willing to lend their expertise, experience, and wisdom to help you become a better computer science teacher. This blog is for you! Ask your questions, and he will do his best to give you sound advice that will get you back on track with whatever issues you encounter, and for which you seek answers.

Have a Question?

CS Teachers are encouraged to submit their questions about teaching CS or other aspects of CS education. Send your question to weteachcs@austin.utexas.edu and we’ll be sure to let you know if your question is featured in the Ask John column of the WeTeach_CS Blog.


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