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Michelle Yao’s Reflection

Michelle Yao

For many students, science courses are a case of “sink or swim”. Those who “just get it” do well, while those who don’t “get it” struggle and accept that STEM is not the path for them. That begs the question, why are STEM courses often perceived in this way? Common threads that contribute to this binary belief include high-stakes assessments, the amount of course material crammed in one semester, and self-doubt (especially when being underrepresented in the classroom) about whether one belongs or is qualified to pursue a STEM career. 

How can we change this perception? By being more deliberate about how feedback is given in the science classroom, both on an individual and class level. Below I identify three areas that have helped me remain motivated and persist in my science courses, and highlight practices that I believe would support my learning and that of my peers. 

(1) Create an environment that motivates students and encourages them to use office hours

Columbia students come from a variety of educational backgrounds and levels of preparation. All students, myself included, can benefit from feeling supported by professors and TAs. I have found conversations with my professors during office hours to be invaluable to my learning. For example, consistently attending my chemistry professor’s office hours has allowed me to clarify concepts and build more confidence in my ability to approach complex problems. 

Yet, I have noticed that many of my peers do not engage in this space for various reasons – fear of being judged, timing conflicts, being unsure about the purpose and use of office hours, etc. I feel that students need to be told explicitly how beneficial office hours can be to their learning and be encouraged to participate throughout the semester.

I have felt supported in my learning when my professors and TAs:

  • Express a belief in students’ abilities regardless of their backgrounds and experiences—check that you are not being judgmental (in action and words) in your responses to student questions, and be friendly and approachable
  • Send constant reminders that resources (office hours, help rooms, CSA tutoring, etc.) are available for students

(2) Guide students in developing good study habits 

Many Columbia students did well in high school simply by studying all the material the night before an exam, and come in with the expectation that they should be able to do the same in college. I have noticed that my peers and I could use support in developing more effective study habits and important skills (e.g., problem-solving) for science classes. In one of my biology classes, it took me until the middle of the semester to understand how to ask questions that would lead me to the correct line of thinking for a question. I was fortunate enough to figure out a study method that worked for me, but many students continued to struggle through the entire course without knowing how to improve despite putting in a ton of effort.

To help students overcome the frustration of “wasted effort”, my peers and I would benefit from professors and TAs that: 

  • Start early – the beginning of the semester is the best time to show students how to approach their learning for the course, and also saves students from the struggle of not knowing how to improve. For example, include a guide to studying for the course on CourseWorks with former student experiences, and/or a TA-led study skills session on how to approach problem sets.
  • Ask students to reflect on their study habits (e.g., “what is my first reaction to a question I find difficult?”), their engagement with resources to support their learning (e.g., pose questions such as “at what point in your studying do you ask for help?”) (See the CTL’s resource Metacognition for more ideas)

(3) Help students persist and learn from their mistakes on assessments

It can be very discouraging when you put in a lot of effort studying (albeit in an inefficient manner) and still don’t do well on an exam. Repeated instances of this discouragement in multiple STEM classes can play a major part in why students end up quitting. This is where feedback to support student learning can be especially helpful so students know what they got wrong, why, and what they need to do to improve.

I have found that going over my mistakes on a problem set or exam can help me avoid similar ones in the future. Receiving guidance from my professors and TAs on how they think about a concept/problem could certainly enhance my own practice as well as those of my peers. A few practices to consider:

  • Ask students to reflect on their performance on an exam or assignment and provide suggestions for future improvement (e.g., “what mistakes did you make? Why do you think you made them? How might you approach this problem going forward? How will you prepare for exams going forward?”)
  • Provide information on how to improve on problems that most students missed so that they have enough time to digest the information and develop a study plan for the next assignment

Whether in-person or online, the most effective way to open communication with students is to take the initiative, and be persistent, even if students may not seem as responsive in the beginning. This persistence comes in the form of repetition. Constantly reiterating the ways to get help (TA and prof office hours, supplemental books/online resources that are helpful, etc.) will show students that you care, and will increase engagement among the class.