Home → Magazine Archive → January 2020 (Vol. 63, No. 1) → January 2020 (Vol. 63, No. 1) → Abstract

Evidence That Computer Science Grades Are Not Bimodal

By Elizabeth Patitsas, Jesse Berlin, Michelle Craig, Steve Easterbrook

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 63 No. 1, Pages 91-98

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Although it has never been rigorously demonstrated, there is a common belief that grades in computer science courses are bimodal. We statistically analyzed 778 distributions of final course grades from a large research university and found that only 5.8% of the distributions passed tests of multimodality. We then devised a psychology experiment to understand why CS educators believe their grades to be bimodal. We showed 53 CS professors a series of histograms displaying ambiguous distributions that we asked them to categorize. A random half of participants were primed to think about the fact that CS grades are commonly thought to be bimodal; these participants were more likely to label ambiguous distributions as "bimodal." Participants were also more likely to label distributions as bimodal if they believed that some students are innately predisposed to do better at CS. These results suggest that bimodal grades are instructional folklore in CS, caused by confirmation bias and instructor beliefs about their students.

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1. Introduction

It is a prevailing belief in the computer science education community that CS grades are bimodal, and much time has been spent speculating and exploring why that could be (For a review, see Ahadi and Lister1.) These discussions generally do not include statistical testing of whether the CS grades are bimodal in the first place. From what we have seen, people take a quick visual look at their grade distribution, and if they see two peaks, they conclude that it is bimodal. But eye-balling a distribution is unreliable; for example, if you expect the data to have a certain distribution, you are more likely to see it.

Anecdotally, we have seen new instructors and TAs (and students) who have shown histograms of grades and told the grades were "bimodal." The bimodality perception hence becomes an organizational belief, and those who enter the community of practice of CS educators are taught this belief.


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