Some students fail my introductory calculus-based physics class.
Those of us who teach these classes generally don’t like to talk about failure, but it happens. Some folks in the real world (that is, the world outside university science departments) don’t like to acknowledge that students sometimes fail, but it’s important that they do. Because by looking at why some students fail, we can help at least some of the students who follow in their footsteps succeed.
There are many reasons students fail in my classroom. Most of the time, students fail because of a combination of them.
Students who miss my class regularly are likely to fail. (So future students should come to every class)
Students who didn’t take a physics class in high school are more likely to fail than those who did. And that’s not just in my class. A study of calculus-based physics classes like mine recently published by physics education researchers at West Virginia University concluded that whether a student took high school physics or not is the single most important factor in determining a student’s score on a pre-test using a concept inventory, which in turn is the best predictor of a student’s course grade. There are certainly students who didn’t take a high school physics course who do well in my class. However, nearly all of the students at the bottom of my grade distribution didn’t take a high school physics course.
One colleague of mine dismisses the importance of high school physics and says, “If students work hard, they always succeed. If they fail, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough.” Certainly a high effort level contributes to student success. However, I am convinced that there are students who are so disoriented by physics when they arrive in my classroom that they don’t know what to work hard at. These students often memorize equations and problem solutions (as they have done in their previous science courses in high school and college) and then tell me they are exasperated because “I understand the material but I can’t do your [weekly] quizzes!” My response is almost always “If you can’t do my quizzes, then you don’t understand the physics.” While that may seem insensitive, I think it is important that students who are doing poorly understand that they must substantially change the way they are trying to learn physics. Fortunately for them, I teach in a SCALE-UP classroom, where students interact with each other and with instructors while performing labs and collaborative problem-solving exercises. We have two three-hour classes per week, and we pretty much beg students to learn physics with understanding rather than memorize equations and problem solutions.
There is a great deal of discussion (and research) about the importance of what I’ll call a “welcoming environment” in the college physics classroom. That is especially obvious in my classroom. If a student isn’t comfortable working with the other members of her or his group, that student gets into trouble quickly. If students in my SCALE-UP classroom aren’t interacting, then they aren’t learning. My students work in groups of three (and sit at nine-seat tables), and if two students in a group aren’t including the third in their discussions, then the third student is screwed. If one student is monopolizing the conversation in a group, then perhaps the two quiet students are screwed. Being on the short end of the stick in a group happens more often to women (who are only one-third of my class) and Black students (who are generally one-tenth or less of the class) than it does to the non-Black male students, but it can happen to any student. One of my jobs in my classroom is to look for students who are not being included in their group’s conversations and to move those students into groups where they are fully included. Often that means moving women students into groups with more or all women. Sometimes (but not always) Black students learn better in groups that have other Black members. Every student is different, and I sometimes place a student in several groups before finding one that works for her or him.
Nevertheless, some students don’t succeed. Sometimes they are successful when they repeat the class, but most often they are not. Those students must change their majors out of engineering or the physical or mathematical sciences, and that is often heartbreaking. I remember seeing a Twitter exchange several years ago in which a science professor was saying that several students in his class were in counseling. Another professor – one not in a science field – responded “They are probably in counseling because of your class!” It is likely my class has been the last straw driving a student into counseling at least once, and probably more than that. That’s not something in which I take any pride. But it is an unavoidable part of teaching a physics course that is intended to build a foundation for a STEM career.
This week, it is especially important to acknowledge that personal or family difficulties can impair a student’s ability to learn. Sometimes a student can recover emotionally from such an event quickly enough to resume learning during the same semester – in fact that is what happens most often. But occasionally a student will be so badly knocked back by an event that the only prudent thing to do is walk away from school for the remainder of the semester and try again the following semester. Nobody likes the idea of a student losing a semester to something that isn’t her or his fault, but it happens.
In any classroom where there is substantial achievement, there is also going to be failure. Wishing that were not so or insisting that failure can be banished from a serious classroom can keep us from preparing the next generation of students for even greater success.