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Surprising study reveals what makes a good coder, and it’s not math

Math abilities explained just 2% of differences in student learning.

Surprising study reveals what makes a good coder, and it’s not math
[Photo: Danial RiCaRoS/Unsplash]
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Turns out that the most important aptitude for coders is not math or engineering but . . . the ability to learn languages.

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This is a big deal! Our cultural and educational practices favor math and engineering whizzes for lucrative coding careers. “Many barriers to programming, from prerequisite courses to stereotypes of what a good programmer looks like, are centered around math abilities, and that is not born out in our data,” says Chantel Prat, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who led a study published today in Nature‘s Scientific Reports. “Information about what it takes to be good at programming is critically missing in a field that has been notoriously slow in closing the gender gap.”

The study was small, following three dozen adults as they learned Python, while undergoing a battery of a dozen tests assessing everything from attention to problem-solving to memory to numerical skills, plus resting-state brain activity. The participants who learned Python fastest and most accurately had strong language abilities, as well as good working memory and reasoning abilities. In other words, good thinkers with prime language acquisition skills. Math ability? Barely correlated.

These findings have huge implications for STEM programs, which tend to exclude humanities students with language abilities. Most college-level programming courses are taught in computer science or engineering departments, often with math and engineering prerequisites. Women earn just 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees.

The researchers call for a “conceptual paradigm shift, mainly that learning to use modern programming languages resembles learning a natural language, such as French or Chinese.” Bonne chance.