Learning and Mathematics

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They're Not Dumb, They're Different - Tobias (1990)

Tobias addresses a concern that has been widely felt across the country for years: the shortfall in the number of students who go on to become scientists. She notes the importance of high school mathematics in preparation for studying science in college, and suggests that in order for students to go on to become scientists, more emphasis needs to be placed on early and continuous exposure to mathematics.

Tobias makes the claim that science must open its doors to the ranks of the 'second tier', those who for one reason or another have decided not to pursue a career in science. One of the major problems that Tobias identifies within college science curricula is the extreme selectivity of introductory courses, which are often designed to weed out all but the 'top tier' -- the best in the class, those who naturally conform to the collective style of the science community, which champions the concept that "scientists are born, not made" (p. 11).

Much of Tobias' book recounts an experiment she conducted in which 'second tier' postgraduates were asked to audit an introductory science course in which they would try their hardest to succeed, but where they would also attempt to describe and evaluate aspects of the class that made science seem difficult or exclusionary. Tobias discusses her conclusions about the second tier, and offers recommendations for reforming science education at the college level.

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Book:

Tobias, Sheila. (1990). They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier. Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation.

Quotes and Comments

Tobias contends that we cannot construct one profile or reform program to match a 'typical' second tier student. Instead, she writes, "not every student who doesn't do science can't do science; many simply choose not to. What we need is a model that allows for more and more finely differentiated groupings among the 200,000 we lose yearly at college, groupings we might call tiers. From these finer groupings could come differentiated recruitment, reward, and retention (and even teaching) strategies, designed to meet the needs of particular tiers of nonscience students, the tiers most likely to respond to a certain intervention and to succeed" (pp.13-14).

Throughout Tobias' description of the experiences of her seven subjects,certain criticisms of the introductory physics and chemistry courses in which the participants were enrolled kept recurring. In particular, all of the subjects felt disappointed and isolated by the lack of 'why' questions in the class. One of the physics students commented, "I think the students around me are having the same sort of thought-provoking questions about the material that I put into my journal, but under time pressure they don't pursue them, [and] eventually they learn to disregard 'extraneous' thoughts and to stick only to the details of what they'll need to know for the exam. Since the only feedback we get is on the homework assignments, the students cannot help but conclude that their ability to solve problems is the only important goal of this class" (p. 37).

Other criticisms that arose involved a lack of community and competition in the classroom among the students, the absence of clear goals for the class, an emphasis on lecture rather than participation, and, as one student put it, "a course design that assumes that everyone in the class has already decided to be a physicist and wants to be trained, not educated, in the subject" (p. 41).

After presenting the experiences of the seventh subject, Vicki Pike, Tobias concluded, "A key finding of this study... is that the college science classroom is perceived by most women, whether they succeed at and persist in science or not, as an 'unfriendly' place to be. More than their male classmates, women appear to be 'uncomfortable working in the intensely competitive environment' that characterizes many introductory science classes... 'what may act as a spur to individual achievement for men is a significant deterrent for women.' The authors of the study conclude, as did Vicki about herself, that certain students, among them women and most likely our second tiers, would respond better to science if more 'cooperative and interactive modes of learning' were part of the pedagogy, and if scientific knowledge were more closely and explicitly linked to important societal issues" (p. 70).

Tobias acknowledges the limitations of generalizing from seven subjects to the entirety of second tier students. Engaging the help, however, of Dr. Abigail Lipson, a Harvard University psychologist who studied 300 Harvard-Radcliffe students with a proficiency in science but a range of attitudes toward a career in science, Tobias found empirical confirmation of her more qualitative analysis. Specifically, Dr. Lipson's data suggest that "the pipeline 'hemorrhage' [of students who stop taking science courses] consists of more women than men even when other variables (such as preparation, aptitude, or first-year grades) are controlled for."

In fact, five main themes characterized the decision of the Harvard-Radcliffe students students to move out of the sciences:

  1. a rejection of the 'culture of competition';
  2. difficulties in decision-making about the science concentration;
  3. fear of cheating themselves out of a 'well-rounded liberal education';
  4. the complex relationship among performance, interests and motivation;
  5. perceived differences between science and nonscience" (p. 73).

Tobias stresses the importance of including 'why' issues in introductory classrooms, and ends with a final recommendation: "Of our second tiers' mathematical competence and its relation to their success or lack of success in doing introductory physics and chemistry, one last observation needs to be made explicit. While inadequacy in mathematics is not by itself a cause of failure to succeed in science, it surely appears to contribute to the degree of difficulty our otherwise very able students experienced.

From this, one policy recommendation might be that the emphasis be placed on early and continuous exposure to higher and higher levels of mathematics for the majority of students in the middle school and high school. Such exposure would be on the premise that mathematics competence may be even more important and more useful for success in college science than exposure to more precollege years of science itself" (p. 91).

- summarized by Jane Ehrenfeld

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