3 Ways to Help First-Gen College Students Survive STEM Courses

Rob Thorne
October 1, 2013

Studying physics and other sciences can lead to many careers -- including in engineering, technology, and the health professions -  that historically have provided paths to upward socioeconomic mobility. What advice can I, a first-generation college student myself, offer first-gen students to help them succeed in physics and other STEM subjects?  Here are a few observations and thoughts.

1. You Get A Lot of Credit for Showing Up

In the introductory physics classes I teach, students get a lot of points toward their final grade just for showing up regularly and making a good effort. Many first generation students don't do that, and it costs them dearly.

For example, in my Physics I class, about 25 percent of a student’s final grade comes from participationg in lecture and lab and homework, primarily based on effort, not correctness.

Any student who makes a decent effort (even if that effort is not entirely successful), turns in work by weekly deadlines, and shows up regularly to lecture and section will earn the majority of these points.

Unfortunately, too many students throw these easy points away.  Many first-gen students, whose prior training in study skills may be weak, get overwhelmed after the first five weeks of the semester when mid-term exams proliferate and courses move from more to less familiar material.  They start missing classes and fail to turn in homework assignments, focusing instead on what they perceive to be more immediate crises in other courses.

Many think that they’ll make up these lost points by studying extra hard for the exams. But this almost never works: They still have to learn the material, and exams are graded on correctness, not effort.  It is far easier to earn points toward your final grade by participating in class and regularly turning in your best efforts on assignments and quizzes.    

2. Developing Expertise Takes Time and Effort

I do "study skills interviews" with students who score below 55/100 on my exams, and those conversations are quite illuminating. Nearly all of these students do not spend enough time studying or misuse the time they do spend.  They don't understand what it means to "understand" a subject and can't judge if they are prepared for an exam, and so they don't engage in activities that are most likely to maximize their learning and performance. 

Many students don't appreciate just how much effort even the “smartest” students have to put in to master a subject, especially problem-solving-oriented subjects like Physics. They see that some of their classmates answer questions much more quickly than they do, and assume that they are just gifted. What they don't see is the years of exposure and practice those students have likely had, in part because of a richer home and school environment. 

Helping students understand just how much work is actually required to develop subject mastery, just how much bumbling and stumbling around is required before that light finally shows the slightest hint of a glow -- that can help them normalize their own efforts and experience and improve their persistence. 

3. Self Image is Important, Too

First-gen students also get trapped by their own harsh judgments of themselves relative to their classmates. 

They might think, "My roommate has spent every summer since she was 4 traveling the world, performs on the piano and violin, is on the tennis team, has two private tutors and a therapist, and can do calculus in her head. How can I ever compete with her?" Or, "I was valedictorian of my high school class of 60 in rural New York State, but my classmates went to Bronx Science and Stuyvesant and spent their summers doing research at Columbia.  I will never see an A minus or a B minus again." 

Helping students take the long view of their education and careers - recognizing that the working world is a rich ecosystem with niches for everyone - can help them maintain their motivation. 

Professors and advising staff thus can play a critical role beyond the classroom, providing first-gen students with the perspective and guidance they need to persist in the tough, consistent and occasionally painful efforts required to pass – and master – subjects like Physics.   

Robert E. Thorne

Rob Thorne, a first generation college student, is a professor of physics at Cornell University and the president and founding member of Mitegen, LLC, a firm that creates microtechnologies for structural genomics.


Top image: nicholasf


This blog is part of the joint Demos-SparkAction project, First to Finish College.