Keeping Perspective

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.


Related Post:
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:

16 thoughts on “Keeping Perspective

  1. I can’t recall #myworstgrade (well, I recall doing rather poorly in high school Spanish…), but I can share a couple of old posts and an anecdote in the same spirit.

    Here’s my shadow cv, listing all of my rejected grant applications, rejected papers, jobs I didn’t get, etc. Everyone gets rejected. A lot. It’s normal.

    And here are my most embarrassing moments in academia. Everyone embarrasses themselves at some point. It happens.

    Here’s the anecdote: As part of my prep for the GRE Biology exam, I borrowed a book of mock exams from a friend. They weren’t actual old GRE exams, but they had the same sort of questions. A week or two before I was due to take the exam, I took one of the mock exams just to check that I was well-prepared (because I felt like I was). It was a shock–I had no idea of the answers to many of the questions, many of which concerned molecular biological and biochemical material I’d never been taught. My score would’ve put me in roughly the 44th percentile (i.e. in the bottom half of all students taking the exam). I panicked. I did something I’d never done and started skipping classes. I spent every waking moment cramming from my old notes and textbooks, and sleeping four hours a night. The night before I was due to take the exam, I took another mock exam. It was even worse–my score would’ve put me in about the *17th* percentile. I went to my best friend’s room and cried on his shoulder. I thought I’d wasted four years of my life, that I’d never get into grad school without taking at least a year of remedial coursework first. My best friend calmed me down and wisely advised me to just take the exam and do the best I could, recognizing that I could cancel the exam before it was marked if it turned out to be as hard as I now feared. I went and took the exam the next day–and it was fine, much easier than the mock exams in the book. Afterwards I went to the friend who’d loaned me the book and said “These mock exams are WAY harder than the real GRE Biology exam!” He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Yes, I know, I thought everyone knew that.” 🙂

    I suppose the lesson here is that what seems like common knowledge to one person can come as a shock to someone else. Whether it’s the fact that everyone gets rejected, or that everyone embarrasses themselves, or that everyone gets bad grades–or that mock GRE exams may be far harder than the real thing. 🙂

  2. I’m interested to see how many people’s #myworstgrade was in chemistry, especially organic chemistry. It’s my anecdotal impression from looking at student transcripts that marks in organic chem run lower than in any other widely-offered course. Perhaps #myworstgrade is roughly synonymous with #itookorganicchemistry. 🙂

    • Not me (although organic chem was a ~70). I went into my first year math failing (45?) and pulled off a 65 which I was kind of proud of. And then never took math again.

      I also had the third highest average in my dorm with those marks 🙂

    • Could be. I never took chemistry (or biology) in college. Lowest college grade was A-. Just goes to show that computer science is easier than chemistry, I guess…

      • “Just goes to show that computer science is easier than chemistry, I guess…”

        I know you’re joking (right?), but this is actually a point I think some undergrads miss. High marks in a course don’t always mean the course is easy, because students aren’t randomly assigned to courses. Back when I was an undergrad I recall that the student newspaper compiled and published data on the mean GPA in every department at the college. As I recall, the highest GPA (3.6, compared to the college-wide mean of 3.2) was in Japanese. Which was infamous for being very difficult. Plus, many of the classes were at 8 am, 5 days per week. So you only took Japanese if you were *really* into it (as my best friend was, he took it for four years).

        Semi-relatedly, I recall data we linked to a while back, showing that when Cornell (I think) started publishing mean GPA in every course on student transcripts, more students started majoring in the departments that were giving out higher marks. Depressing to think that students might choose their majors in this way. But amusing to imagine that, in doing so, at least some of them might end up unwittingly majoring in really difficult courses rather than the “easy” ones they presumably were seeking.

        Hmm, this could be good fodder for a future exam question on correlation and causation in my intro biostats course… 🙂

      • Sorta joking. For me, CS was definitely easier than chemistry would have been. Courses like orgo are (from my understanding, haven never taken the course) heavy on rote memorization, which is not my strong suit. By contrast, I had a head-start advantage in CS, and it’s more logic-based rather than memorization-based, which favors my aptitudes.

  3. Received a C- in Bio I. Currently have a master’s in Biology, and am working on my PhD in a well-known program in Ecology.

    If anything though, being a Biology major and getting a C- kicked my butt into gear, because I never received less than an A- again! It would be interesting to hear about how people responded to their worst grade. Luckily, I was working in a lab on campus (how? I don’t really know), and the professor I was working for teased me about the grade, and it motivated me to show him! 😉

  4. In chapter 2 of “David and Goliath”, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how low grades in Intro math and science courses impact students’ self-confidence and, in turn, career choices. I found it interesting, and it’s closely related to the topic of the post.

    • This came up in our discussion of that infamous E. O. Wilson editorial in which he advises students who struggle with math to not bother learning it and instead just find a scientific field in which they can make big discoveries without knowing any math: One common response (which I share) was to say that it is indeed a shame if students get turned off to math (or the mathematical aspects of science) because they struggle early on, but that the solution is to teach math better.

  5. Pingback: SciCurious | #myworstgrade

  6. I still remember sitting with a famous colleague while reading grad applications (back when they were on paper in a big file cabinet) and hearing him say, “I never consider students with an A in O-chem.” When I asked him why, he replied, “It shows misplaced priorities.”

  7. Pingback: Late-semester thoughts on flipping the classroom | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Pingback: Friday links: how to spot nothing, Aaron Ellison vs. Malcolm Gladwell, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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