Through the years I had several students that clearly were not fitted for computer science. Some of them ended up by dropping the program after a few years, some of them are still there struggling year after year.

I guess that one of the main problems is that they shouldn’t even have started the program, but due to unemployment of other programs, and the permanent media coverage on the lack of IT professionals, they end up enrolling.

Right now I am aware of 5-10 students that are on their 7th, 8th and further years on a 3 year program. And some of them are getting worse every year. So, they are basically spending their parents’ money and could be doing something more productive instead of just being there.

In some cases, it just makes me sad to see that they are absolutely unable to progress.

So, my question is: has any of you ever had to tell a student that s/he should probably enroll in a different program?

Note: I am aware of this question about CS class, my question is about the entire program.

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    $\begingroup$ Let them fail, hard. Many places I know have hard (no go-around) filters in place after two years or so (in a 4 or 6 year course): An exam which you may be allowed to re-take once or twice, but not more often; if you fail the final try, you are out for good. If no such formal communication of failure exists, create one for your course, if it is in your power. $\endgroup$ – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jul 9 '17 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ It's very unfortunate the number of students on my classrooms that are studying CS because "it gives money" or "my parents told me to". And from my experience (limited to Portuguese some highschools and colleges) this happens with higher frequency on CS courses that anyother one $\endgroup$ – Safirah Aug 30 '17 at 18:50

Don't tell them anything. Ask pointed questions. Ask why they chose this course, or this major. Ask where they expect to be in a year or in five years. Make them talk through their plans. Let them find the gaps in it.

This past semester, I asked every single student that came in to my office to change majors to CS (or to IT) the same first question: "Why?" Some students had a great immediate answer, and I signed the form right away. With others, we had a 20 minute conversation. Some of them said they're in it for the money, and I would say things like "You'll make more money as a plumber, and you don't need college for that." "Oh, but my dad said-" "But what do you want?"

It's like helping them learn to debug. Let them come to the decision.

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    $\begingroup$ :) That is a nice way of dealing with it. But that will only work for the students that want to change majors, right? $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca Jul 7 '17 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ You make more money as a plumber? Didn't know this... any source on this? Would love to change what I do... just kidding ;) but data would still be nice. $\endgroup$ – user541686 Jul 8 '17 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ You don't. Even assuming you just end up with a (relatively low-paying on the average for CS) sysadmin job, it's going to typically pay more than most plumbing jobs: payscale.com/research/US/Job=Systems_Administrator/Salary payscale.com/research/US/Job=Plumber/Hourly_Rate (See "Total Pay" for both). $\endgroup$ – NighttimeDriver50000 Jul 8 '17 at 1:55
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    $\begingroup$ You can certainly make more money as a plumber if you're not suited to CS/programming/IT. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Conrad Jul 9 '17 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Mehrdad I think Wayne hits the nail on the head -- I've seen plenty of students who would make more money as a plumber than as a software dev, simply because I don't think they could land a job as a software dev at all. $\endgroup$ – apnorton Jul 13 '17 at 4:01

I wouldn't tell my students such thing because of two things.

One, I can never be sure enough. I don't see the whole picture. They are struggling in my courses, maybe many of my colleagues say they are struggling in their courses too, but they might turn out to be amazing web or UI designers later. Or maybe they have a God given talent in some obscure mathematical field that will be really valuable in the near future in robotics. I can never know.

The other thing is that saying something like this can do irreversible damage. A professor telling a student that they are not good enough for a given field is just brutal.

What are you trying to achieve? If you really want to help them, you need to get to know them very well, have a few beers together, have some long talks, find out why they even started CS, and very carefully help them realize they have other options. But to be honest, I'd rather spend the little free time I have with students that excel, and help them get even better.

So my short answer is: don't tell them. You can't know for sure, and it is really not you who should enlighten them. That is what friends and family are for. Help them if you can, and fail them in your course if they are below expectations.

(Now I'd give a very different answer if you were teaching future teachers. But since these folks are only hurting themselves on the long run if you are right...)

  • $\begingroup$ :) I never told that to any of them (and i know its not my job to do it). The thing is that it really makes me sad. I know that some of them are capable, but simply do not care about the course and spend their nights playing games. But some other students, should really be doing something else (studying another subject, working, ...). But as you said I am not 100% sure (I guess I am 98%).. :) $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca Jul 7 '17 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ +0: I flip-floped about equally whether to up-vote or downvote. +1 for 3rd paragraph! I've read numerous accounts of people traumatized by this, who succeeded anyway but were driven by intense anger. Causing this is not the approach I'd recommend. -1: 4th paragraph. You understand that such drinking is likely illegal for most college students in many areas. And you suggest they be alcohol-influenced when trying to make serious life decisions? I like 2nd paragraph but not your 5th's 3rd sentence (being friends is succeeding as a human, so intervention is desirable; don't shy from such burdens) $\endgroup$ – TOOGAM Jul 8 '17 at 16:25

First and foremost, I applaud the love you have for your students. It is clear that you care for them deeply. I have no doubt that this desire to honor them as human beings works its way into your classroom and your private interactions with the students, and I have no doubt that this makes a real difference in many of their lives.

Second, I am unfamiliar with the norms of your country, so I don't know how well my answer will translate to a new situation. Therefore, what I say might not be entirely correct in your circumstance1.

However, if I could bear it at all, I would not tell them anything. I recognize that it can be heartbreaking to watch someone flounder year after year, but as a teacher, I do not feel that it is my place. I would, instead, speak to my administration. Are there guidance or scheduling counselors or deans? This kind of life advice should, ideally, come from someone above the level of a classroom teacher.

If I absolutely could not bear it, then the situation is somewhat different. This is now less than ideal! But if I simply could not hold it in, and I had the kind of warm relationship with the student where such an overture would be welcome, I might find a good moment and ask them about their goals, and ask them why they feel that they have been stuck in a 3-year program for 8 years. And then I would really listen closely to what they say next.

Depending on what they say, I might offer to help them in any way that I can, and I might further mention that there is no shame in switching majors. Their only obligation is to find something that they can be good at, could enjoy, and could help others with. If one program is not working, they should not allow the sunk cost fallacy to hold them in place, because they only get one life to live, and there is no reason to live it trapped in a box that they have made for themselves.

1 You see? Here I pretend here that my wisdom would be sufficient in my own circumstance. I do not consider myself so wise, nor so lucky! This kind of situation is very hard, and you have my sympathies.

  • $\begingroup$ Ben, I am Portuguese... The educational system here in Portugal is totally different from the US.... Nonetheless, all the advises are valuable and can be adapted to our reality. I will have to look further, to see if there is indeed anyone that could talk with this students... All my colleagues acknowledge the problem, but the truth is that no one does a thing to change it... and the situation just keeps on repeating. $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca Jul 8 '17 at 9:25
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    $\begingroup$ Advice from a teacher may be more valued than advice from a career guidance counselor, because the student must interact with the teacher and therefore knows the teacher better than some counselor that the student's never met. $\endgroup$ – TOOGAM Jul 8 '17 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ I think, as educators, we have a certain duty (because we can almost predict where someone is going with what they are doing) to tell that they might be unfit with this. guidance counsellors simply cannot make a case like educators (who have more interaction time with students) do. $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 22 '17 at 16:01

In the catalog at the liberal arts college at which I teach, we state that students must earn at least a B- in the following early courses to major in Computer Science:

  • Java 1
  • Java 2
  • Discrete Mathematics 1
  • Data Structures and Algorithms

Because the standards are explicit, it is clear that it's nothing personal if we say a student cannot continue in the major.

If the student really is interested in computer science, I tell her this might not be the right time in her life for her to do it (not that she's incapable of ever doing it) and advise her on retaking courses, with any appropriate accommodations. I might also advise her on related majors in which she might be more successful.

We have no way of stopping a student from continuing to take CS courses (as long as she has passed the prerequisites), but the policy sends a strong message that they should choose a different major.

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    $\begingroup$ Ellen, this is a good idea! Unfortunately, this will not work in my country (Portugal). Here, once the student enrolls in a program, the school cannot tell him/her that he cannot proceed... :( Our data indeed show that students that were unable to pass (or had very low grades) in the first year programming classes, will have serious problems in all the remaining classes that involve programming. The only thing we have are "soft pre-requisites" (you should know this to do that). $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca Jul 8 '17 at 9:36
  • $\begingroup$ @NunoGilFonseca Can you state in the catalog that students who earn less than X in classes A, B, and C are unlikely to succeed in the major? That way, at least they're warned. $\endgroup$ – Ellen Spertus Jul 9 '17 at 17:29

To basically repeat some of what others said, hopefully shorter:

Don't you dare tell them what they should do. Like who to marry, that is their choice. Just tell them what you do know: "These are the skills that I find most successful people in this field have..." "Here is what I'm seeing when I assess your current skills..." Leave it up to them to decide how they, once informed, want to handle incongruities.

  • $\begingroup$ I'd be extremely reluctant to tell them not to go in the field, primarily because of what is described by the third paragraph of vacip's answer. Case in point: I once taught (in college) an ex-truck driver. He struggled to get Ds. This old guy was in no way suited to excel in this field. The career center was obligated to be involved for each student, and summoned me to discuss this problematic instance. I talked to him to make sure saw/expected realistically. He was striving to better understand the field that his son was to join. He had a sensible reason. Satisfied, I let him decide $\endgroup$ – TOOGAM Jul 8 '17 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ TOOGAN, I currently, have a father and son in the same class... :) The father is the 2nd year of a 3 years degree for some 10 years, His son, is doing well... :) I understand that it is not my right/dutty to tell someone what to do. The thing is that they are totaly stuck... $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca Jul 8 '17 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ If he's been at it for 10 years, he's certainly not achieving typical market expectations of performance. So, if he isn't needing to achieve such typical accomplishment, then does he even need a degree? Maybe he has no need to graduate soon. So, if he hasn't dropped out, then what motivation is he pursuing? Presumably he has one, as he keeps signing up for an expensive activity that costs both money (from somewhere) and time. Do keep doing your job (trying to get them unstuck), but don't feel like you're immoral because they make the choice to keep staying in the program. It is their choice $\endgroup$ – TOOGAM Jul 8 '17 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ I have also seen some faculties actually giving advice about personal life decisions. That's perhaps the most non-smart thing to do ever. $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 22 '17 at 16:00

I kind of like this question because I have faced this situation many times, and I have in fact, told my students, that yes, they should change their specialisation or at least pursue something else.

Most of the time, the students hate me for saying that. Some have accused me of interfering with their lives. Others, think I am overstepping my boundaries. However, as is always the case, some of them are happy to sit and discuss why I said that. These sessions can go on for long hours, but eventually, we are able to figure out what is right for them.

For instance, I had this student who was just terrible at programming. If not for decent repetition and memory, the student would have failed the class. I found out that the student had extraordinary artistic skills. I was able to sit and map out a career path which used these skills. Now the student is working hard refocusing career goals, away from computer science. Like this, there have been many cases where I was able to realign people towards their goals.

All said and done, I tell students that they are bad at this (by providing historical data for the same) but I also tell them what they should be doing instead. This seems to work. Over the years, I have learnt that some students are more open to such suggestions than others, and have gotten good at identifying such students.

So, the process works something like this.

  • identify those who totally should not be in CS
  • find out what else they could be doing.
  • are they open to suggestions?
  • if yes, go ahead and tell them. If no, well, control the urge to tell them, and may be just stay away from them :)

I used to work at a community college in the US, where students often hung around for years in the CS program. I agree that it is a terrible outcome, resulting in lost wages and lost potential.

However, when I looked more closely at these students, I'm not sure the problem was that the students couldn't learn CS. It seemed that the problem was that they weren't applying themselves in class for a variety of reasons---sometimes, but not always, for highly sympathetic reasons, such as competing family obligations or need to work. Other reasons included the lack of places to study on campus coupled with a poor study environment at home, or not knowing anyone in the program and becoming demotivated socially. Sometimes, I think the problem was that the teaching in their classes was very poor, and students chose to drop the class and re-try rather than get a poor grade.

Will the students that you advise really do better in another program? CS is a great area, with many job opportunities, even if students join the workforce with just a few CS classes. Perhaps the answer is to reflect on issues within your CS degree program and consider how you can get students to stay on campus, focus on work, and get help when they need it. Social motivation will likely be a large factor. Tutoring strategies like PLTL can address the academic needs while also forming social bonds between students.

Best of luck!


Never tell a student he or she should think about a different major unless they ask you. When I was junior high one of my teachers told my parents that "college isn't for everyone", hinting at the idea that I wouldn't make it to college. My parents never told me this until after I graduated from college with a Software Engineering degree.

Sometimes students choose majors for the wrong reasons. Ask them what made them want to take this major? Do you enjoy programming? What classes do you like currently? If they just flat out dislike all their classes then perhaps suggest they see a counselor or go to a community college. Community collage gave me the time to take various classes that interest me without paying the university price. Once I figured out what exactly I wanted to study, I transferred to a university. It saved me money and time in the long run. I know of students who graduated with their degree and hate it... That would be the worst outcome of all.

The best thing you can do is help point them in direction of something that interests them. Perhaps the student has the worst teachers for those classes and introducing them to one of your favorite professors can help. Show them the best side of computer science at your university and if they still dislike it then perhaps the answer is clear and they should switch to degree that they're actually interested in.

  • $\begingroup$ A good and wise answer (IMO). Welcome to CSEducators. Hope to hear more from you. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Aug 30 '17 at 19:04

In almost all cases I've come across, these are students who don't enjoy what they're doing in the program at all. I try to point out that if there isn't something they enjoy about the process, they won't want to do it as a career no matter how good they get at it. That's usually enough of a wake-up call.

(Note: if they do enjoy what they're doing even though they're doing it very badly, the early courses probably aren't challenging enough to test them appropriately.)

When the students are older (30's and 40's) they usually have the wisdom to see this for themselves, but young students often do things without stopping to consider why. Figure out what they want to do, what they enjoy doing, and guide them in that direction.


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