Promoting persistence in STEM Learning Community: Bad teaching, weed out courses, the struggle to thrive, and what non-STEM students can teach us

This year, a group of faculty members (and one soon-to-be faculty member) from multiple departments at Vanderbilt are joining together to consider how to promote persistence in STEM at Vanderbilt. We are using Talking about Leaving Revisited (TALR) as a guiding text. In our fourth meeting, we heard summaries of three chapters from TALR plus a summary of the study that informed They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier. Here’s a summary of those summaries.

[Please note: this post is long, and the version of WordPress I’m using won’t let me create anchors so you can jump to the different chapter summaries, so I’ve made the section headers red and all caps.]

Chapter 6: Student Responses to Problematic STEM Teaching

This chapter identified six ways that students identified poor quality teaching:

As the table indicates, students frequently identified a lack of organization as being problematic. The disorganization could be within a given class period—“…the lecture was just all over the place to me so I didn’t understand…he just kinda talked without a set agenda.” (p. 157)—or in the course as a whole, with students having trouble discerning how the elements of a course fit together, whether that was from unit to unit within the course or between course “pieces,” (e.g., lecture and lab). Students also indicated that instructors would often assume understanding of foundational knowledge and skills without checking to see if the assumption was valid—or taking steps to shore up those foundations if students did not have them. Perhaps most troubling, students identified a lack of interest in teaching and interacting with students, with about a third of students who switched identifying this as a problem.

The chapter is rich with quotes, which I will not reproduce here. As I read through student comments, I began to wonder if there is an analogy to what causes problems for someone who is doing experiments in the lab. When a person has trouble getting reliable results in lab, it is typically due to one of three things: a lack understanding of what they’re trying to do; problems with executing the experiment (e.g., bad pipetting, lack of instrument calibration);  a lack of interest in doing the experiment. As I read student comments about problematic teaching, I thought: some of these instructors haven’t thought about how people learn and what helps us learn; some of them have theories of learning but have problems with time or classroom management or other “execution” problems; some of them don’t want to be there, perhaps because of other competing interests but also perhaps because of previous negative experiences. Each of these causal problems has a different solution, and each causal problem could manifest in different ways. All three could lead to the appearance of disorganization, for example, but the solution would be different. So as we think about steps going forward, I think we have to think about things from the instructors’ perspective: what would help us solve these causal problems?  

 Chapter 7: Weed-Out Classes and Their Consequences

Thomas Clements provided the following (really helpful) outline summarizing Chapter 7 and its definition of weed-out classes and their consequences. A key point that the chapter raises (and that is echoed elsewhere in the book) is that students perceive curving—even curving that is only intended to help students—as arbitrary, and that they do not perceive the grades they get in classes that curve grades as reflective of their understanding.

What are they?

  • Described as “barrier” or “gateway” courses
  • Not well studied in the literature with a lack of understanding what the term denotes
  • Characteristics
    • Large Foundational Course
      • Large class size: Greater than 100 students
      • Lower Division
      • Established (on the books greater than 4 years)
      • Required for a STEM major
    • Weed out class contains additional criteria
      • Grading is much more severe than other courses
  • Curve grading
  • Quota of certain grades
  • High percentage DFWI (D or F grade, withdrew or incomplete)
    • Switching rates double for students receiving one of these grades and there’s appear to be no gender difference among students in this group
  • Most commonly associated with service courses like chemistry and calculus

How do students perceive them?

  • Assessments misaligned with content and understanding
    • Misaligned levels of difficulty between homework and exams
  • Heavy volume and pace
    • “It’s like drinking from a fire hose.”
    • Prevents actually learning the material
    • Many prefer to learn/memorize the content on their own and not attend class
  • Level too high/abstract for an intro course
  • Rote learning/dull content in lecture mode => Focus on memorization
    • No interaction or active learning present
  • Teacher indifference
  • Incoherent class structure
  • Competitive class structure that can be hostile


  • Students who receive grades like 30-60% and curved to B/A are less inclined to maintain excitement to take additional courses
    • “You are just inflating the test scores to make it look like someone has a higher understanding than they actually do–my A versus his B could be a 60 and a 55. Does that truly mean that I know more than he does, or was I just lucky with one of the equations?”
    • “This class completely destroyed my confidence, made me decide to drop my computer science minor, and eliminated any interest I had in this area.”
  • Adjusting to curve grading also carries the risk that habitual focus on peer comparison can over time create ill-founded confidence in one’s own level of understanding.
  • Students somewhat endorse the idea that instructors and their departments want to be sure that only students with the requisite interest, capability, and determination proceed to the next (intrinsically harder) stages of the major, but making the introductory learning experiences artificially hard appears counterproductive to this end.
  • These classes are deliberate attempts to reduce student numbers
    • Retaking a class completely destroys confidence
    • This attitude helps students rationalize the poor teaching in these courses
  • Mostly affects students with structured disadvantages of race/ethnicity, family income, and education level coming into the course. 
    • Especially students with more than one of these disadvantages
  • Students often link grades to identity
  • Weed-out class experiences also redirect talented students away from STEM disciplines into majors that enable higher GPAs. This increases students’ chances of acceptance into competitive graduate professional programs.

Why do they exist?

  • Instructor limitations
    • Challenge of large numbers to teach: Use their best instructors in one large section or opt for smaller classes taught by part-time instructors— often graduate students—whose preparation for teaching is often minimal. 


  • Gateway course failure rates can no longer be ignored or viewed as a badge of distinction and rigor!

What can we do? (Tom’s ideas)

  • More sections led by Faculty (reduce class size)
  • Have Honor’s sections to separate out different levels of student preparedness
  • Use science based interventions to help improve classroom environments
    • Interactive lectures and increased usage of active learning
    • Use of Learning Assistants or TAs to decrease instructor:student ratio
    • Flipped Classroom approach
  • Realize that with these interventions that grades SHOULD increase
    • Dispel the idea of grade quotas
    • Focus less on obtaining a desired average on an exam, but more on learning key concepts
    • Work to have uniformity across sections to reduce the idea that students are learning less or different things in different sections

Chapter 9: The Struggle to Belong and Thrive

Jessica Gilpin provided the following very useful summary of this chapter.  Some observations that really struck me, related to two different but related elements of the struggle to belong: “Sometimes students switch less because of actually receiving poor grades…but because of the perceived possibility of failure and a forced exit happening in the future” and “Many switchers characterize the STEM environment as “unwelcoming and emotionally sterile”. Here’s Jess’s summary:

The chapter starts with a kind of overview of many of the topics we have discussed so far:

  • What causes switching? Conceptual difficulties, pace of content, content load, etc
  • A concept relevant to me was the connection of lab and lecture courses: “Lab sections often felt like a separate class rather than an extension of an associated course” (p.279)

The chapter then jumped into more detail on the main issues that cause switching:

  • Problems with pace and content load of STEM courses: tough course material made tougher by a rapid pace, incomplete understanding leading to ongoing struggle, teachers blazing though foundational ideas (not fully explaining for student comprehension), insufficient prep at the high school level, material pitched too high for foundational courses
    •  A key note I made was that “lecture-style classes lacked opportunities to build and reinforce understanding through discussion, application and experiential consolidation”
  • Problems due to misalignment of course components: we discussed some of the issues with having disorganized courses, but also the problem of labs not explaining concepts well or relating them back to lecture (cookbook style lab instead of actual learning and solidifying of concepts)
  • Problems negotiating multiple courses simultaneously: this one is pretty self explanatory, students take multiple courses at a time and usually multiple STEM courses at a time and they can get overwhelmed by the workload and trying to understand it all, especially in the first year of college when they lack the study skills they need to do well
  • Problems related to ‘hardness” in STEM: I found this section interesting because it discussed the difficulty of STEM, yes, but also how it perceived by persisters and switchers, “one notable contrast between persisters and switchers in how they experienced hardness as an element of STEM instructional culture was that persisters tended to describe hardness challenges as a characteristic of particular instructors or courses but not of STEM majors per se. Switchers, in contrast, tended to describe these challenges in more general terms as typifying their STEM higher education experience.”
    • Along those lines persisters described hardess as requiring effort and time to understand concepts, cope with heavy workloads and apply onself “putting effort into it,” internally driven
    • The effort switchers put into overcoming hardness tended to be externally supported by supplemental help rather than internally sources by applying oneself to understand the material
    • This contrast came up in our discussion today when Richard told an anecdote about a colleague who talked about parents calling him to say they were in charge of their child’s ability to do well in a course – putting all the blame on the teacher if the child failed.
    • On the reputation of a course being “hard” persisters experienced the course as less hard than expected vs switchers who internalized what they heard leading to anxiety and other stressful emotions leading to postponing the taking of the course or withdrawing from a program that requires it
  • What makes STEM courses hard?
    • Grading practices: students do not comprehend the curve grading system
    • Grade shock: “Sometimes students switch less because of actually receiving poor grades…but because of the perceived possibility of failure and a forced exit happening in the future.” Fear of future failure caused switching
      • This ties into discussions we have had about profs discussing their own failures, normalizing failure
      • It gave me the idea to find older students (juniors/seniors) that have taken a “hard” course I am teaching, have them talk to the students about how this “hard” course was worth taking and won’t seem as bad in retrospect.
      • It might also be helpful for Visions to talk more about failure, growth mindsets, etc than they do now.
    • Learning to adjust learning style/study style to succeed after not doing as well as one hoped
    • Fun fact that is not so fun: “high achieving women who received just one C grade were almost three times more likely to switch out of STEM than women with comparable overall GPAs who received no Cs.”
      • Male engineering students were comfortable with getting grades that were “good enough” to continue in a program, they anticipated learning on the job.
      • Relatively poor grades led female students to lose confidence in their future ability to successfully fulfill professional roles more so than males
  • Retaking courses: on the topic of this I found it interesting that some student interviews included antidotes about how when retaking a class with say a different professor or in a different department, the students found professors/teaching styles that then inspired them to succeed in the major and how large of an impact a professor can have on persistence 
    • This also brought up the idea that the same course, taught by two different profs could be radically different in terms of grades, homeworks, tests, etc. (Should things be more standardized? It is confusing to students?)

Then we get to the topic of this chapter (on page 24 I might add)…

Belonging: A sense of belonging connotes student perceptions of acceptance, fit and inclusion, while a lack of belonging is associated with isolation, marginalization, differential treatment and stereotypes.

  • Wilson et al. (2015) found that belonging at the class level, more so than the university level, was associated more strongly with engagement and commitment to persist
  • Peer interactions influence students’ sense of belonging more profoundly in the early years of undergrad and interactions with faculty become more influential in later years
  • Sense of belonging predicts intent to persist

A student’s sense of belonging is an outcome of these 5 phenomena:

  1. Students’ assessments of their own and their peers’ competence in STEM, including the adequacy of their preparation in high school to succeed in a STEM program;
  1. This is where professor feedback is very helpful to students (comments on papers, lab reports, rubrics, etc)
  2. If a student has taken similar classes or feels prepared in a course it will increase their belonging
  3. Students’ encounters with, and reactions to, competitive individualism among their STEM peers;
    1. Comparing oneself to peers
    1. Not so fun fact: 10% of switchers (all women) reported competitive behavior by their peers had contributed to their decisions to leave STEM
    1. Curve grading contributed to a competitive classroom climate
    1. Work intensive atmospheres undermined peer interaction – can cause switching
    1. Some of the anecdotes in here are striking and show a need for profs to intervene and calm the competitive atmosphere especially when it comes to peer on peer taunting environment in the classroom 
  4. The formation of cliques among STEM students and related interactions with peers that affect access to, and dynamics within, study groups;
    1. This is where profs can intervene (mix up groups, have group homework assignments or group tests where the groups get mixed up so that certain students do not feel alienated from the cliques
    1. From the text: In another example, a department followed a policy of study groups being required for homework, including randomly assigning, then reassigning, student group membership in the study groups in order to reduce isolation and mitigate against the exclusionary practices associated with informal study groups.  (This relatively simple policy and instructional intervention is in line with research- based strategies that have been shown to improve cross-group interactions 
  5. The nature and extent of connections and relationships built into STEM curriculum and instruction;
    1. Many switchers characterize the STEM environment as “unwelcoming and emotionally sterile”
    1. STEM majors like their upper level classes much more because the environment was welcoming and everyone was interested in the topic also by that point students have been in the same classes with many of the same people so that fosters comradery
  6. Interactions with instructors. 
    1. Some of the belonging problems experienced by switchers arose from lack of aca- demic support or encouragement from instructors.  
    1. Persisters more so than switchers, not surpris- ingly, reported more positive connections with instructors as having contributed to their sense of belonging and persistence in STEM.                                              
    1. Just as a single negative interaction with an instructor could compromise a student’s sense of belonging, a single positive interaction or moment of recognition by an instructor could also be enough to affirm belonging and propel a student’s commitment to persist. 

Belonging issues specific to students of color, first generation, economically underpriv.

  • Roughly 18% of students of color in our interview sample experienced some degree of race and ethnicity-based isolation during their STEM studies. These prob- lems were often characterized in terms of students’ compromised ability to relate, which undermined connections with other students and access to help (ex. had difficulty finding peers to study with)
    • It’s important for profs to know the resources available to all students (ex. Black Cultural Center hosts study hours and tutoring for STEM majors)
    • Do not allow stereotyping to happen in your classroom

Belonging issues specific to women

  • belonging-related gender issues were of concern to well over half (62%) of all the women interviewed and more women than men switched because of these issues
  • for women to feel that they belonged in STEM hinged upon self-assessment of their intellectual competence as STEM majors. This could be undermined by the competitive dynam- ics among peers as well as their estimates of the risk of “standing out” publicly as incompetent                   
  • the main difference between switchers and persisters was how belonging issues were handled 
  • There are a couple of interview comments mentioned toward women that were sexists and very problematic from older male faculty
  • Previous research has shown, female faculty in the physical sciences, especially older professors who have had to struggle to survive among hostile male colleagues, can be disinclined to provide targeted sup- port to female students                                                             
  • having women as instructors in a program did not necessarily mean that their female students felt more connected. A woman who switched from phys- ics to anthropology explained that, even though there were many female faculty in her department, they were difficult to relate to: 
  • Another problem (harked on in engineering examples) is stereotypes in group projects that keep women from learning new skills (ex. the guys make the girl do the paperwork), also the ability for males to have an advantage in these fields due to informal STEM experiences (working on cars, video games, etc).
  • I feel any hostile environment in the classroom should have an intervention from the prof or TA to try and alleviate these belonging issues if they are seen/heard.

Overall Takeaways/Conclusions                                                                      

  • Concrete, yet simple, instructor and departmental practices, such as assessment policies, program design, group-work policies, and the provision of academic support, can positively influence students’ sense of belonging and their commitment to persist in STEM majors. 
  • Instructors and STEM program representatives also need to be aware of, and ready to intercede in, informal peer inter- actions—including status competitions, stigmatization, and exclusion from peer support—that occur among students 

They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier

Richard Haglund provided this thought-provoking summary of this text, which asked recent post-graduates who had 1) majored in a non-STEM discipline; 2) taken four years of high school science and math; 3) taken at least one semester of college calculus, to take introductory science courses and to journal about their experiences. My take-home from Richard’s summary is that these students found the introductory science classes isolating and lacking the type of intellectual interaction with peers and instructors that they wanted—and they found that their courses lacked the “intellectual connective tissue” that they wanted to understand a subject more fully. I read these comments as being really connected to those of students identifying “poor teaching” in Chapter 6 of TALR and the feelings of isolation identified in Chapter 9. You should listen yourself to hear how Richard weaves in a poem and call for us to remember that the sciences are liberal arts to complement his synopsis of the study.

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