High School Science: Why Some Kids Struggle, & How to Help Them

Thinking back to your 8 AM high school chemistry lab, you must remember the kid who breezed through effortlessly while others struggled, convinced that they were genetically incapable of ever comprehending the periodic table. “I am just not a math/science person” is a common refrain amongst the lost, a self-perception that seems to reinforce itself as midterms approach. Others start the year off strong, only to see their grades plummet after the first quarter or semester, with the concomitant disappearance of their self-confidence. And yet for some, those for whom it all makes complete sense, “struggle” is a foreign concept, or at least appears so to others. Are these kids just that much smarter? Do they have some inherent science gene the other kids claim to lack? Indeed, they even seem to enjoy learning about vectors, magnetism, and electron configurations. Why is this? Why do otherwise great students, who excel at French and write terrific essays on Hamlet find vectors so challenging, while some master these concepts with what appears minimal effort? (Actually, although they will never let you know this, it usually is not minimal effort). Years and years of observations made through one on one tutoring lead us to believe that despite the perceived shortcomings of the perpetually confused, the capacity is in fact there, and the common refrain “I am just not a math/science person” might derive more from a lack of preparation and rigor from middle school science than from any real inability to master even the most challenging of high school science classes.

If you take nothing else away from reading this, understand that almost all students, regardless of how much trouble they have with science, can almost certainly handle the most rigorous science classes offered, generally thought of as AP Physics C or IB Physics at Higher Level, and that this potential for success can carry them at least through the first two years of a college engineering major. (Yes, we really do believe this). After that, there may indeed be some inherent talent that has to kick in to really go further on. But up to that point? Chances are they can do it, even if these subjects are not amongst their personal favorites. Why then is there such a struggle, and why is this more prevalent in the US than in much of China and India? Many reasons, of course, and amongst those reasons are often serious learning disabilities. We do not mean to trivialize those, and lack the expertise or background to address them. But for many of the students we encounter – that is, outside the realm of students with serious learning problems – if we try and identify the most fundamental, basic skills needed, it is not a stretch to say that quantitative and analytical reasoning abilities are often lacking in the students with the poorer science grades. Basic high school chemistry, physics and biology rarely require anything beyond these fundamental abilities, but students are expected to have them, and many don’t. For some reason, when graphs and especially functions are first introduced in detail in middle school, and basic biology and physical sciences first introduce rudimentary labs, some kids just missed out on the parts of the course meant to develop their quantitative/analytical reasoning skills. Again, this is not meant to sound overly simplistic, and it is just one of undoubtedly many factors. But high school science is designed to get you to think like a scientist as much as it is to teach you the nuances of a particular topic, and if basic analytical and reasoning skills from middle school are lacking, so too is the capacity to think like a scientist. The good news is those skills can be learned, even at more advanced ages.

In fact, many of the skills needed are relatively basic, and any determined student can master them with practice. As we have mentioned in several of our previous blogs, these skills begin with habits, and the habits should include:

•Writing your problems out neatly and legibly. This is science, and the more neatly and orderly you work out your problems, the more the answer will tend to manifest itself in front of you. Often we will hear a student say “Oh I know I got that wrong, but it was just a sloppy mistake”. Well, they should be penalized twice! Once for getting the answer wrong, and then once for being sloppy in the first place.

•Include your units as you work through your problems. This is especially so in chemistry and physics; in physics half of the course (well almost) is including your units. And in physics classes particularly, try and come up with the answer in terms of the proper units before you plug in the numbers.

•Examine each step before you proceed! Ask yourself before you move to the next step, “how can I be sure I am not wrong? Am I sure I am right?” Be really critical! One way to know you are on the right track is to look at the units as you work through the problem, which should cancel as you work towards an answer with the units you seek. The importance of this cannot be overstated; if you are off by a small amount this can amplify itself as you get towards your answer. If you are the first person on a rocket ship to Mars, and your vector is off by 1 degree, then yo, you’re in big trouble, dude.

•Understand that if the answer does not come to you instantaneously, it is not because you are stupid. Although, you might feel stupid. But take heart, you will have company.

Also:

•Review your class notes, assuming you have them. Most teachers (not all, but most) will tell you what you need to work on and what they expect you to know. Believe us when we say you should do so.

•If at all possible, study in groups! Your friends will understand things you don’t. And it is way more fun.

•Don’t wait to write up your lab reports, because you will forget everything you did in the lab. If you can write the lab up within a day, your recollection and understanding of what you did will still be there and your lab report will get a better grade.

One problem some stronger students will run into is when they try to learn everything through memorization. They will have a certain amount of success with this in biology, which often is the first science class they encounter in high school, but memorization becomes much less effective with chemistry and physics. In fact, it will probably hurt them, because they will try and answer test problems that are often slightly different from their homework problems using a set of memorized procedures. This sometimes works, but the students who do really well think of the problem solving techniques they have learned as a set of tools to answer any given type of problem, even if it is something they have not seen previously. Trying to force a template, step by step procedure as a strategy for answering a series of memorized problem types will lead to frustration, not to mention wrong answers!

This is particularly so at some very highly achieving schools, where the test questions will expect a student to come up with entirely new problem solving methodologies on the spot. That is, the expectation is that if the student understands everything from lecture, and they understand all of the assigned homework, they should be able to tackle a problem that is similar to, but different from, anything they have seen in either their homework or lectures. Again, trying to force a template set of problem solving methodologies on to a new problem type will only lead to frustration. In these cases, we suggest our students start by writing down what they do know about what the problem asks. It might not even be in the order the problem asks, but as they figure out what they do know, and start writing it down, the correct pathway to answering the problem will just begin to magically appear.

Another issue we often encounter, and which several studies seem to back up, is that when a parent had a particularly rough time in math or science, so too will their children! The anxiety seems to get passed down. One study in particular showed that “kids whose parents were anxious about math learned less math over the school year” (see link here). And since math class forms a big chunk of a student’s ability to think analytically, it would hardly prove surprising that the math anxiety demonstrated by a parent might negatively impact a child’s performance in science class. Interestingly, parents who demonstrated aptitude at math also seem to unknowingly pass this skill on to their children (see link here).

Often, our more artistically inclined students argue that studying science is not inherently creative and as such they cannot, as poets or budding actors, get it; indeed, they even worry that studying vectors will somehow hurt their creative abilities. They needn’t worry. First, if they talk to any graduate student in any laboratory in the world, they will learn that science is unbelievably creative and that it forces you to think originally. The difference (or, one difference) is that with science you must first learn a series of new rules before you are facile in that mode of thinking. We like to say that studying science is much like studying jazz guitar; both demand you learn a series of seemingly arcane rules, which, once mastered, allow for unlimited creativity. And if you still think it will somehow stifle your creativity, please watch this short video about Broadway dancer Nat Horne (see link here), and in particular pay attention to what his college major was, which he mentions at the 2:20 mark (although if you have 12 minutes, watch the whole thing because it is absolutely fascinating).

It is in fact fair to ask if a student who has heretofore not expressed a particular interest in science, or perhaps even expressed a disinterest, should have to take a very rigorous science course. There is a school we work with that has a relatively new, extremely challenging chemistry course, and a number of families are a bit upset about it. The school was long known as a “liberal arts” school, and more than a few families were caught off guard when the new curriculum was introduced. However, we suggest their protests are misguided. First, it is quite common for high school students to have no idea at all of what academic subject they want to pursue in college, and if they decide they do want to pursue science – perhaps even after they enroll in college – this particular class thoroughly prepares them for introductory college chemistry. To offer the watered down version of that course just would not be fair to those students. Second, we can think of a host of courses we all took that, although we would flunk our final exams 6 months after we took them, provided us with useful methodologies that remain with us later in life. We might not recall the finer points we made in our essay on Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, but we do recall how to write a critical essay. We don’t recall how to decline a noun from Latin II, but we sure might make use of our Latin when we fish around for the words we need at the café in Paris. And just as we benefit from the formal education we receive in essay writing and language, so too will we benefit from an ability to think analytically and quantitatively, even if we do not make explicit use of those abilities. It is basic to a fundamental education. The bottom of every student’s education pyramid must include skills and modalities of thinking that may not make their way to the forefront of a student’s thinking as they mature, but which will always be there should they ever need to draw upon them. And also, don’t you think it is kind of interesting to know how an astronomer can identify what elements are in a distant star, using information they glean through a telescope?

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