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The Teaching Sciences Seminar on October 13 was an informal discussion with Dean of the College, Charlotte Johnson, and Inge-Lise Ameer, Associate Dean of the College for Student Academic Support Services. The goals of this session were for Charlotte and Inge to meet the science faculty and for all in attendance to discuss the role student support services plays in promoting student success in the sciences at Dartmouth.

To facilitate this discussion, attendees were provided with the following readings, which focus on the latest research on first-generation college students, stereotype threat in education, and new research focusing on how to shrink the college minority gap.

  • Cushman, K. (2007). Facing the Culture Shock of College. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 44-47. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Ferenstein, G. (2011). How to Shrink the College Minority Gap. Fast Company. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from http://www.fastcompany.com/1741530/shrinking-the-minority-college-gap-for-free.
  • Steele, C. (2010). Conclusion: Identity as a Bridge Between Us. In Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. (pp. 211 – 219). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Dean Johnson opened by outlining her vision of anchoring students in the intellectual life of campus and the importance of connecting what goes on outside of the classroom with what occurs in the lecture hall or lab. In particular, she noted the importance of building the faculty/student relationship outside of class and ensuring that the work of the Dean of the College feeds into and augments the Academic experience.

On the topic of student recruitment and retention in the sciences the message revolved around expectations and modeling. Students who have the opportunity to engage with and be mentored by diverse faculty and graduate student populations have a greater likelihood of success. Students are also more likely to thrive if they perceive that they are held to the same high expectations as others and that faculty are invested in their success. The key is to communicate this in a way that does not threaten a student’s identity.

When asked how a faculty member might address diversity issues in class without threatening student identity, both guests suggested faculty use silent signals such as

  • Letting the entire class know that you are aware of the variety of differences among the students experiences and preparation leading up to this class and that you are invested in each student’s success in the class.
  • Creating working groups, study groups and teams with a range of diversity in race, gender, experience, knowledge, etc.
  • Crafting critical feedback to include statements of encouragement and directing student to the support services available at Dartmouth.
  • Engaging the student in academic pursuits outside of class.
  • Communicating directly with Student Support Services at the first sign that a student may potentially need support.

Many faculty in attendance voiced a desire for improved communication and involvement between the Dean of the College and the faculty when it comes to student support and recruiting in the sciences. From the conversation that ensued around this topic it was clear that both Charlotte Johnson and Inge-Lise Ameer are committed to a developing a collaborative relationship with faculty in advocating for student success at Dartmouth.

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On Thursday April 8, sixteen faculty members from departments across the sciences division, including math and engineering, joined with fourteen other campus leaders to listen to five students describe their experiences, good and bad, in science courses at Dartmouth. All five students belong to minorities underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses, not only at Dartmouth, but across all selective institutions of higher education. Most of them started in science because they wanted to be doctors. One of them may well pursue academic science instead. The rest remain on the MD path and regard most, but not all, science courses as a necessary evil on that path. It was very interesting to hear why that is.

Encouraged to be candid, most of these students reported being terribly discouraged in their first-year science courses by disappointing grades. Disappointing grades without much other feedback, and without much chance to offset them in the course of a short term, leads many students to a crisis of confidence, to resentment and an erosion of trust between them and their professors. When asked why students who get low grades are reluctant to visit professors in their office, one woman replied quite frankly, “because I feel already judged.” Learning theory tells us that people learn best when they can try something, fail, and receive useful feedback before trying again and being graded, but these students report that there are precious few chances for this in our science courses. One bad midterm grade can pretty much erode the trust and confidence required to learn from failure and proceed to success. In short, many of these students are not convinced that their instructors truly are invested in their success in science.

Most of them persist in science anyway, even if they describe themselves as “not a science person,” because they want to be doctors. So they develop work-arounds like taking organic chemistry as an intensive summer course at Harvard or putting off pre-med preparation to their post-baccalaureate years. None of the students who talked to us is planning on giving up.

Some of them paint a more encouraging picture of Dartmouth’s science courses. One sophomore woman got “hooked on science” by her organic chemistry course, partly because when she felt like giving up, her professor simply wouldn’t hear of it. A positive, confidence-building experience with a professor, or a health-care professional, seems to be the key to success for students who struggle with science. A senior neuro-science major loved Bio 11 and got lots of encouragement from the people at the DHMC lab where she worked part-time. Another chose anthropology for a major after encouraging consultations with faculty and now he has completed almost all his science requirements and will continue on the MD path.

When asked to make specific recommendations for science teachers, they all said instructors should concentrate on keeping students engaged in class. They suggested using clicker questions, even without the clickers, posing questions to individual students and then waiting, even “counting to five,” before moving on to another student. Nothing is more discouraging than being singled out as the one who doesn’t know the answer and then not having a chance to work through to the answer and recover confidence. Some of the faculty present also recommended things like testing students twice, once just for feedback, and then again for a grade. Others urged more frequent and more varied assessments targeted at a range of learning styles.

In everything they said, these students reminded me that we need to convince students, over and over again, that we believe in them and in their success. We need to demonstrate this to them in everything we do, especially when it’s time to help them past a disappointing test grade. Without a strong sense of trust, going both ways, students find learning much more difficult.

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