High School Science: Why Some Kids Struggle, and How to Help Them
Thinking back to your 8 AM high school chemistry lab, you may remember the kids who breezed through while others struggled mightily, 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 struggling, a self-perception that seems to reinforce itself as midterms approach. Others start the year off strong, only to lose their way after the first quarter or semester, with the concomitant disappearance of their self-confidence. And yet for some, those for whom it all makes sense from the start, “struggle” is a foreign concept, or at least appears so from the outside. 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 minimum 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, and perhaps even from elementary school science and math, then 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, can almost certainly handle the most rigorous science classes offered, such as AP® Physics C or IB® Physics at Higher Level, and that this potential for success can carry through at least to 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. 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, and Western societies generally, 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 we lack the expertise or background to address them. But for many of the students we encounter – that is, those 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 those very basic quantitative and analytical reasoning skills are often lacking in the students with the poorer science grades. Introductory high school chemistry, physics and biology rarely require anything beyond these 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 many of the fundamental themes. Or, they came from middle schools that de-emphasized science. Again, this is not meant to sound overly simplistic, and it is just one of undoubtedly many factors involved. 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 not present, so is the capacity to think like a scientist. The good news is those skills can be learned, no matter the age.
In fact, many of the required skills are relatively basic, and any determined student can master them with practice. As we have mentioned in several of our previous blogs, these 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. We cannot emphasize this enough! Work as neatly as you can.
- 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 especially, try and come up with the answer in terms of the proper units before you plug in the numbers. Some of the more rigorous schools won’t even give you credit unless you solve for the variable in question first and plug your numbers in last; it is a great habit to get into.
- Examine each step carefully 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? 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 serious trouble dude.
- Try and estimate the order of magnitude you expect from your answer, before you start the problem. Is your answer of this approximate magnitude?
- 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. Seriously though, understand that when you feel challenged, it means you are engaged with, and wrestling with, the problem. This is how you learn.
- Review your class notes, assuming you have them. Most teachers (not all, but most) will tell you what they expect you to know and what you need to work on. If you want an excellent predictor of what is going to appear on the test, those clues will appear in your class notes. Also, “reviewing your class notes” does not mean giving them a cursory look over – it means understanding every last detail and possible implication, and all subtleties included therein. Know your class notes.
- Addendum to the above, added Nov 7 2019: After conversing with a chemistry teacher about one particular student’s note taking, that teacher suggested the student “take pictures of the whiteboards or what I write on the board. I worry that if she is always taking notes, she will never be actively engaging in the conversation with her group, which is fundamental to how the class operates. We’ll have to find a balance, I think. I might encourage more picture-taking after the whiteboard discussions.” This sounds like an excellent idea, especially if the class actively encourages student participation – as many do.
- If at all possible, study in groups! Your friends will understand things you don’t. And it is way more fun.
- Labs – 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.
- A separate point for another blog, but let’s mention it here: “My teacher hates me”, also known as “I hate my teacher”. Advice here is get over it.
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. One study in particular showed that “Parents’ math anxiety can undermine children’s math achievment”. 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, especially in physics and chemistry. Interestingly, parents who demonstrated aptitude at math also seem to unknowingly pass this skill on to their children, according to this paper published in the journal Developmental Science (a brief, non academic summary may be found here: “Parents good at math likely to have children who are good with numbers“).
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 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 physics 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 dance legend Nat Horne, and in particular pay attention to what his college major was, which he mentions at the 2:20 mark (although if you have eleven 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 students were caught off guard when the new curriculum was introduced. However, we suggest their protests are misguided. First, it is quite common for a high school student 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 offers them excellent preparation for college level work. 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 that we all took, for which we would all flunk our final exams 6 months later, but from which the methodologies remain, ingrained forever into our intellect. We might not recall the 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. At the bottom of every student’s education pyramid we must include skills and modalities of thinking that may not reside at the forefront of their thinking as they mature but which should always be available for them to draw upon when needed.
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