Building Bridges
Science Education at Bryn Mawr College

Tri-College Math, Science & Technology
Teaching Symposium
May 6, 2003
Bryn Mawr College



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Discussion Group

Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Students from Underrepresented Groups

Facilitated by Kathleen Siwicki, Swarthmore Biology Department

The discussion opened with a brief review of a study that was published recently, "Improving Biology Performance with Workshop Groups" (Born et al., 2002, Journal of Science Education and Technology 11:347-365). The results of this study, along with other evidence, suggest that the performance of both majority and minority students in science courses can be significantly improved when students engage regularly in collaborative problem-solving in the context of weekly enrichment workshops. The experience of learning how to apply concepts in a low-stress environment is believed to increase student confidence and improve overall performance by decreasing their fear of failure and anxiety in test situations.

Several people noted that their courses included weekly supplemental instruction classes or study sessions that were facilitated by more senior undergraduates. Most of these were organized without any specific training of the upperclass facilitators, beyond the expectation that they had performed well in the course. We questioned whether the students with the best grades in a course are always the best choices to act as tutors or facilitators, since students with an instinctive understanding of a subject might have a hard time explaining challenging concepts to others. It was noted that there is a new program at BMC that provides training for upperclass facilitators of such supplemental sessions. The question of how best to train facilitators is a crucial one, for which we did not have any clear answers. We agreed, however, that if faculty members are responsible for training the facilitators, we should beware of training them to make the same mistakes that we make ourselves! Experience suggests that supplemental instruction sessions should be introduced at the very beginning of the semester, as one of several strategies that successful students take to be successful (among other things like studying 10 hours/week, etc).

It was interesting to hear about efforts to promote mentoring relationships among science students from one of the TriCo science librarians. They have paid specific attention to the hiring and shift scheduling of library assistants such that younger students are scheduled to work the same shifts as older students studying the same fields. They hoped that such shift pairings would not only help to train the younger assistants in the fine points of using the library’s resources, but also would promote informal mentoring relationships that might extend to academic issues beyond the library.

Another problem that sometimes interferes with effective teaching can be maintaining a balanced and constructive classroom culture. In some classes, frequent "clever" comments from more confident students can intimidate others from asking basic questions. In such cases, it can be a challenge to control the classroom culture, so that the less confident students are comfortable with asking questions when they don’t understand.
The question of "What to do about students who don’t realize when they don’t understand things?" elicited a lively discussion, including the following specific points:

  • For students to recognize the limits of their understanding, we must ask them to use their new knowledge. Most of us are comfortable with teaching facts and ideas. But what we need to do is help students learn how to think analytically, how to use the facts and ideas.
  • Keep challenging them to use information. Constantly giving them problems to solve helps students to recognize what they don’t understand.
  • Allowing them extra time (after class) to finish a quiz can help them to recognize that it’s not just a problem of "running out of time", but that even with unlimited time they may have problems articulating the things which they thought they understood.
  • To help students recognize that learning how to use knowledge is a process, it can help to draw a specific analogy to what happens when they view and re-view a complicated movie (e.g., Minority Report). The first time watching the movie is like reading the assigned chapter in a textbook – it seems like a reasonable story, and you can believe that it all makes sense. Then every time you watch the movie again (or re-read the text chapter, or try to use the information to solve problems), you find more things to question, less to be certain about.

While we began the discussion by talking about how to help students from underrepresented groups to succeed in science & math courses, it was interesting to note that we ended up focusing on ways that we could all be better teachers for all students.