Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Disparities in incoming freshmen science groups.

My institution is part of one of those programs in which incoming science majors are "treated" to a summer of intensive science and math to get iffy (B average in HS) students prepared for the rigors of a science major and to get them excited about science.

I agreed to teach a few sessions of a lab. I chose a fun demo which accidentally uses some math and statistics, too. I thought I had done well at coming up with something fun that incoming freshmen of all science interests could have a good time with. I prepared pre-reading, pre-lab questions, instructions, post-lab questions, etc. One trick to being a good teacher is a "feel" for how much students can do in a given amount of time. I'm getting pretty good at that. Also, what level of "tough" is appropriate for which circumstances. I'm getting pretty good at that, too. BUT I have never done a "summer camp" before.

I taught the same lab twice in a row: yesterday and today. I don't know why the students were divided into the groups they were, but I had HUGELY disparate groups for the two sessions.

*Yesterday*, the students came in, picked up a handout from the front of the class, and I noted their name on their badge. As I started class, I could find them from the name I had remembered. I gave a intro, relatively brief instructions, and set them on their way. There was much nodding and then as they were working, they acted as if the written instructions were clear and did all their calculations according to the instructions.

When I would make an announcement, they would stop what they were doing and listen attentively. They finished with a bit of time to spare.

*Today*, the students came in, picked up their handouts, but I noticed that very few of them were actually wearing their badges. While I thought it was odd, I assumed that as the days went on, they felt less obliged to identify themselves to each other. However, as it was time to start class, and I did the usual "How's everybody doing today?" clue that it's "listen to Prof" time, these students didn't budge from their conversations. Two kept texting, and finally by the third shout from me, I had only 80% of the students attending to me.

I gave a similar (but not identical) intro and instructions, and when it came time to form groups, the students had a rough time dividing themselves up into 4 groups of three at these machines and one group of two at these machines. I had to intervene far too much for "adult" aged people.

Once the students did find their group, they had a hard time following the instructions as written in the handouts, and when they started to do their calculations- wow, but wow- was that rough. We had a measurement in which you were to do it three times and take the average. At least 4 of the 16 of them failed to divide by three. Moreover, they were to compare their results with an average value in percentage e.g slightly above average = 120%. Even though the formula was written for them, 5 of the 16 could not get the correct answer here.

Today's group was far more concerned about what answer I wanted versus the ideas behind the questions, did not listen to me during in-lab announcements, and they barely squeaked finished with the lab in time.

Both yesterday's and today's groups did pretty well at giving ideas of how to divide their groups into subgroups from which we could run stats to find differences. One of the suggested ideas was for dividing by schools. Since this is a collaboration between all the schools in the area, there were several represented. Ours, another SLAC, a CC and a big school.

When this question was asked among our groups, it became clear that today's group had a preponderance of Big-schoolers and yesterday's group was predominately the Small-schoolers. I did not know this a priori.

My immediate reaction post labs was, Oh, my gosh, we have much better incoming freshmen than Big School. And I will cling to that, but not tightly. If it's true, then this line of reasoning makes me think in three directions;
1. I am REALLY grateful to be teaching here and having better students makes the salary differential worth it,
2. Its not just that SRU produces better graduates through a higher quality of education, but that its a different applicant pool in the first place.
3. It also makes me realize that everything I'm learning about teaching only applies to better students. And there are a LOT of kinds of students out there. I'm am not as close to being a good teacher as I had hoped.

There are, of course alternative explanations for the disparity in these two groups.
1. It could be random. I have an n=1.
2. The subtle differences in my introductions could have enough that I set a tone badly today or left out an important concept that left everyone very confused and intimidated.
3. The students in general could be more fatigued today than yesterday. For that matter, insert any time-dependent variable here.
4. As my research student points out, students that are interested in partying don't apply to Small Religious U.
5. Most likely, Big school has a large variety of applicants which the small schools do not have. It could be that the small schools encouraged nearly all of the incoming science folks to take this summer camp, both the good ones and the at-risk ones. Big school may have been more selective in encouraging only their at-risk students to apply. The incoming populations of all science majors could be alike, but we only see the worst students from Big School in summer camp. The argument against this is the overall incoming numbers (ACTs. SATs) for our school are higher than Big School's (as reported by those hokey Newsweek things, anyway).

Is this blog entry about Big vs Small schools? No. I'm not trying to debate that. I'm ONLY talking about these specific schools in Really Gorgeous Area, and can't generalize. The take home message here is the epiphany I had today about incoming science majors from different schools here. The difference was faaaaaaar greater that I would have imagined.

ADDENDUM: An alternative explantion I hadn't thought of- Big School has a major that the small schools don't - engineering. A re-check of the population of my second group reveals a huge engineering contingent. This may explain a bit of disengagement in my wet-ish lab activities, but the math issues??? Lord, help us all...


  1. Could their science knowledge still be comparable? The things you noticed seem to be more math related as well as just simple courtesy/manners and being able to follow directions.

    I teach science at a CC and I could relate much more to the group you had the second day. In my upper division classes (micro, A & P), I get much of the same behavior. And, there is no excuse that they are new to school and what is expected, as to place into these courses, they need to have some college science already under their belts.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    The reading of the instructions didn't go as well with the second group either, nor was the retention of the introductory material. So I assumed that they either didn't have as good of reading skills, OR the prior background so the stuff would stick better, OR just had weaker cognitive skills. Again, this is all speculation and impression...

    Do check out my addendum.

  3. I've had similar experiences. I think the intro by you was probably not as good the second day. I always have this problem, too. It's like beginner's luck, almost, or I'm just more focused and aware the first time through. The second time I'm always more relaxed, and it's easy to forget to mention things because I know I already said them (yesterday, but my brain doesn't remember that!). It's a learning curve thing - eventually I figure out which things are essential to mention, and make sure I hit all the high points every time. But for me it takes several iterations to get to the point where it's solid and consistently reproducible without my having to get all nervous every time just to make sure I perform at the highest level.

    I also think the engineering component is an important one. My impression is that engineering students learn differently. They need different things spelled out for them in the most point-blank ways, down to the minutest details, because they take everything absolutely literally. And they do better with auditory information than with reading instructions (they don't like to read).

    And, re: commanding the interest of the group, yeah, it helps if you can figure out how to communicate mutual respect. Treat them like adults, and they'll act like adults. I find it helps to start with a very brief speech about how you're all there to spend some quality time on a shared goal ... where you spell out the goal up front (the take-home message of today). I try to make it clear that you're all on the same team and you want it to be fun to learn, not boring.

    If they know you're taking it seriously, that helps them understand they're lucky to have you as a teacher. Students who've had a lot of mediocre teachers sometimes need to be shaken out of the mindset that school is a necessary evil.

  4. I'd agree that the engineering factor could be important. As an engineer who also has a social sciences degree, I definitely used to notice differences in 'general' learning styles. Engineering students seem to have a greater need to believe what they're doing is 'useful' and have no patience for stuff that is interesting but not applied. My pet theory why when I was a student was a temptemental inclination towards the applied exacerbated by a heavy workload that made you feel you had no time to piss about with the crazy stuff some random prof thought was interesting (more than double my social sciences load and frequently morethan my now- husbands workload at medical school!) I'm sure math was the worst for it too - most engineers I know have zero interest in pure math.