We are at that point in the semester where many students are incredibly anxious about their performance in courses. This is especially true for first year undergraduate students. One aspect of teaching Intro Bio in the fall semester is trying to help students manage the stress of transitioning to college. For many of these students, this semester has marked the first time they have ever received a C on a major assignment (such as an exam or paper), and it can be very, very hard. I get it. I remember very well what it was like to struggle as a freshman.
I went to a small high school that I loved, but that had pretty poor science instruction overall. It became quickly clear in my science classes that I was woefully underprepared. Like many students, I hadn’t needed to develop good study skills and habits in high school, because the work was easy. And then there was the cultural shift – my graduating class had 36 students. My sister’s had just 9! So, going from a high school of 100 students total to an Intro Chem lecture hall with 300 students (and that was just one of three sections!) was really overwhelming. I was pretty clueless.
In my first year, I got a C+ in inorganic chemistry. And, frankly, that wasn’t such a bad grade, considering how far behind I was coming in, and that I was pretty sick that semester. At that time, I didn’t panic about its effects on med school or grad school, because I knew I didn’t want to go to med school, and grad school wasn’t on my radar at all. I also, though, had the perspective provided by my older sister. She had gone to the same high school and college I did, and had gotten a C in her first semester Intro Bio course. When she got that grade, she was sure she wasn’t going to get into med school. In the end, she had no trouble getting in, and she’s now a successful family medicine physician who loves her work. I often tell students about my sister and myself at this point in the semester, because many of them really, truly believe that a single bad grade will cut off career options. I can also tell them, based on my experience on my department’s grad admissions committee that it is absolutely not true that one bad grade in a STEM course will prevent you from getting into grad school in the sciences.
And, based on responses to my tweets about this, I am far from alone in having done poorly in a science class but then gone on to a successful science career. I’ll put several of them below at the end of posts. They are great for putting things in perspective – there are lots of us who had bumps (sometimes big ones!) along our path. This series of posts from SciCurious is particularly worth reading, in my opinion:
On a related note, I also struggle to keep my own perspective during these times. It can be so easy for me to take on the students’ stress and anxiety and become anxious myself. Plus, as I will cover in a future post on flipping the classroom, this semester has felt like trying to sprint a marathon, since we’ve done a major overhaul to the class. So, I am already a bit frazzled when interacting with my students. The frazzlement (pretty sure I just made up that word!) comes because, inevitably, there will be some slides with typos, or one question on a given quiz that was confusing. I absolutely HATE when these things happen. Like many (most?) academics, I have high standards for myself, and hate making mistakes. But, rationally, I know that, if I’m writing 100 quiz questions a week (and, yes, that number is correct), there will be some mistakes. So, I need to have some better perspective for myself: I very much want to get an “A” in teaching, so to speak. That is, I want to be a good, engaging, effective teacher. But that does not mean that I’m not allowed to be human and make mistakes. So, just as a single bad grade (or even a few!) doesn’t mean for my students that their dreams of a career in science or medicine are dashed, for me, a mistake in a lecture or on a quiz doesn’t mean I’m not a good instructor.
Perspective. It’s useful.
Hat tip to Tanya Noel for pointing me to this post on a related topic
Here are some of the tweets. Tweet your own using the #myworstgrade hashtag: