How Undergraduates Learn Computer Skills: Results of a Survey and Focus Group

Core computer competency skills have become requirements for both higher education and private industry. To meet with the demands for computer-literate students, many colleges and universities have implemented computer competency entrance exams, exit exams and required computer classes. Some colleges have made ownership of name-brand desktop or laptop computers a requirement for entrance, and others have even distributed computers to each of their students (Young 1997).

Also hungry for computer-literate college students are corporate recruiters, who have reported that core computer competency skills are very important to the employability of a recent college graduate (Davis 1997).

While there have been numerous articles defining what it means to be computer literate, what constitutes a core set of computer competency skills, and what colleges have done to change their curriculum, there has been little or no research that attempts to identify how students actually learn these skills and which method best suits their learning style.

A survey of the undergraduates in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was conducted in the fall of 1998. As part of a larger review of undergraduate curricula, a questionnaire was sent to all 3,084 students. The questionnaire included a section on Computer Competency Skills and asked students to rate the effectiveness of various methods for learning computer skills. 1,176 questionnaires were returned, and although the return rate was not ideal (38%), random telephone surveys to non-respondents did not reveal a bias between respondents and non-respondents.

This article reports on the quantitative findings from this survey and on the qualitative findings from a prior focus group of undergraduates on computer literacy.


Results of the Survey

We asked undergraduates to rate the effectiveness of eight methods for learning computer literacy skills (credit classes, non-credit workshops, drop-in clinics, faculty support, peer-support, online help, printed documentation, and trial and error). Responses were scored so that methods could be compared with each other.

According to Figure 1, Trial and Error, Credit Classes and Peer Support were clearly ranked as being more effective than Faculty Support, Online Help, Printed Documentation, Non-Credit Workshops or Drop-In Clinics.

Figure 1. Students Rank the Effectiveness of Learning Computer Skills

We performed a Chi-square test to see if there were any differences that could be attributed to the student's year at college. There were no differences based on student year with the exception of Credit Classes in which upper-level students consider credit classes more effective than lower-level students.

In our college there are several open microcomputer labs designed specifically for drop-in use by students. We were surprised to see that Drop-In Clinics ranked last in our analysis, so we cross-tabulated some response variables to try to find out why.

Several of the microcomputing labs are open from 8am to midnight, with limited daytime hours on weekends. Despite the fact that the majority of respondents (76%) claimed that the lab hours were adequate for their needs, this same group did not feel that these labs were an effective method for learning their computer skills.

Secondly, the microcomputing labs are primarily staffed by trained students, not full-time staff members. We were interested in finding out if the lack of trained support was responsible for the low effectiveness of the labs. We found out, however, that even students who felt they received adequate help in the labs agreed that the labs were not an effective method for learning their computer skills.

Results of the Focus Group

On March 26th 1998, we conducted a focus group with ten student leaders from our college. The purpose of the focus group was to obtain student feedback, perceptions and ideas about computer competencies and support.

  •  Experience and Confidence

About half of the students had taken at least one for-credit computer class. Generally, the students felt very confident with their word processing skills and moderately confident with their spreadsheet skills. Few of them had any graphical/electronic presentation skills, and only one individual had any significant database management and programming skills.

  • How Students Learn Computer Skills

Students learn their computer skills primarily on their own and use their peers, online help and manuals for support. They occasionally go to a computer lab for help. They sometimes ask their TAs, but rarely ask their professors for help (restricted office hours and limited knowledge of software applications were cited as reasons). Only one student had taken a non-credit computer class. Their workstyle was "learn as needed," which often meant Sunday evenings.

  • Course-Related Tech Support Needed

There was unanimous agreement that professors assume students have specific software skills without providing any support or training. This was a source of considerable frustration and stress for many students. On the other hand, students do not want professors to spend significant amounts of their time teaching software instead of course content.

  • Support at the Departmental Level

There was a consensus that there should not be required courses at the university level, nor at the college level. Those who supported required courses (about half), felt these courses should be departmental requirements only. Other students advocated short non-credit classes, offered by departments or specific professors, designed to get students up to speed with skills needed for specific classes.

  • No Computer Competency Tests

Students were not in favor of a computer competency test, whether administered with English and math competency tests at the beginning of college or upon graduation. One student remarked, "A college-wide computer competency test would be as welcomed as the [required] college swim test."


Implications for Colleges

The results from both the survey and focus group have wide implications for supporting student computing needs.

Our college is not unique in placing heavy emphasis on formal classroom learning. More attention, however, could be placed on informal peer tutoring and support. Resources could be used to train undergraduates, whose responsibility it would be to support his/her colleagues outside of the classroom. Instructors could also put more emphasis on hiring student teaching assistants who could consult outside of regular class hours. These teaching assistants could use the widely available microcomputer labs for one-on-one consultation or for group review of class assignments.

Peer counseling is an alternative for formal classroom training and has positive benefits to both the learner and the trainee. The University of Newcastle tested a computer peer-counseling program and noted significant savings in staff and hardware costs (Dolton 1994). Their recommendations, however, should not to be taken as a justification for dissolving classroom learning altogether.

A study of basic computer classes by Keeler and Anson (1995) found that students learn more when they are allowed to work in a lab together, and that students who have high anxiety about computers show significantly better results when in a cooperative learning environment. The results from this survey and focus group suggest that we should be placing more emphasis on informal methods for providing computer support, and a peer-counseling model may be an effective and cost-efficient method for achieving this goal for our college.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.