Why are STEM Classes So Hard?
Six years ago I bought a book: The Secrets of Top Students. Written by Stefanie Weisman, a former valedictorian at New York’s Stuyvesant High School and high achiever at Columbia University, this is perhaps the best and most pragmatic guide to academic success I have read that is relevant to today’s students.
One thing that sets this book apart is that it provides special information for students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, aka STEM subjects.
These are the academic programs that the media and pundits say will provide the most jobs for future college graduates.
Sadly, these are the programs that college students are most likely to give up before they can declare a major.
Citing Engage to Excel, a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Weisman reported that more than 60 percent of students who enter college planning to major in a STEM subject end up earning a non-STEM degree.
Some reasons are:
- STEM faculty are among the toughest graders, even if they do not teach the classes that have the most demanding workloads. Grade inflation is less prevalent in the STEM majors than in any other majors on campus.
- Grading on a curve is more common in STEM classes than in non-STEM classes. Teachers decide that a set percentage will succeed, muddle through, even fail their classes before the first class has started.
- STEM classes in the same subject are “cumulative.” Knowledge is built upon what you have learned in the earlier classes. If you struggle in the early classes your struggle is likely to continue into the more advanced ones.
- The above combine to create a “sink or swim” mentality. Grading is more competitive. And if you don’t seek help you are more than likely to fail.
The introductory courses in subjects such as Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics are designed as large-lecture classes. They are used to fulfill requirements in so many majors and pre-professional programs.
Another name for these STEM classes is “gatekeeper” courses. Sometimes you will see separate sections for engineering students or non-science majors, but it’s quite possible that students who intend to pursue several different majors in the same class.
The quality of instruction that students receive in a gatekeeper class depends upon:
- The quality of the textbook(s): is the text something that majors and non-majors will be able to understand, even if the faculty member or the teaching are poor lecturers?
- Varied academic interests of students. For example, a prospective pre-med, psychology major, environmental studies major all have different interests. But they must all take biology and chemistry. More schools are designing classes or lab sections around these interests.
- The amount of help available. Many schools have peer tutoring programs in STEM classes and other subjects where a student who aced the course is paid to provide small group or one-to-one instruction to other students who are struggling with the material. These programs have become quite visible, even at schools such as Georgia Tech that enroll some incredibly bright people.
- “Flipped” lectures. One new technique used by colleges is to encourage students to listen to the lecture on their own time, then attend class to learn more on the material discussed–TAs should never introduce new material–and go over problems.
Weisman recommended three common-sense homework strategies to help any student get through STEM classes:
- Prepare. Go through the textbook, sample problems, notes taken in class before attempting to do problem sets.
- Start working. Do as much of the homework as you can do before the professor’s or TA’s next office hours so you know where to ask for help.
- Do every assignment. Weisman points out that in some STEM classes a professor will throw away the lowest grade on a quiz, assignment or exam. But that does not mean that you should skip an assignment, especially at the beginning of the term. The work only gets harder towards the end.
From my experience with math classes Weisman is correct. While math was not one of my favorite subjects in college, as well as in preparation for business school, it was a necessary evil. The most effective strategy I had was to try to do an hour to an hour and a half of math everyday, unless I had an exam to prepare for. I did not ace any math classes. But I did get B’s when I was taking them for a grade, and I passed a Calculus proficiency for business school after I had not taken a math class in 13 years. To me these were stellar achievements.
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