On Obstacles, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my lab TA’s to have our students write their answers to these questions:

What do you feel is your greatest obstacle in achieving the grade you want in this class? What is one thing that is being done regularly in lab or lecture that helps you? Or is there something that is not being done that you could see helping you before your next test?


What hurdles do your students have to clear on their paths to success? Image cred: Wikimedia Commons

We got 60 responses across two sections.

I’d like to share some of their answers with you. The first question, and the subject of today’s post, is “What do you feel is your greatest obstacle in achieving the grade you want in this class?” I’ll tackle the other two questions in a future blog post.

Seventeen students (more than 25% of students who responded) alluded to their difficulty in understanding how the material fits together. In a way, I am not surprised that this response led the pack, because I frequently emphasize to my students that memorizing vocabulary words will not be enough to do well in the course. On the other hand, it is puzzling because I provide so many resources that should help students focus on connections. Or at least I think I do … hmm. I will return to this point at the end of this post.

About 10 students alluded to time in some form or another – some have trouble staying on top of all of their classes, some can’t come to office hours or Action Center (supplemental learning session) because of other commitments, some admitted to not devoting enough time to studying, some mentioned “time management” in general, and a couple admitted to procrastinating. Other than reminding students to keep up with the material and not limit their studying to the time immediately preceding an exam, I am not sure what I can do as an instructor to help.

Speaking of time, I won’t waste yours by listing all of the responses that only a handful of students made, but a couple of them are noteworthy. Five students mentioned “information overload.” That one makes a lot of sense to me, partly because this is a 5-hour course and partly because of the two responses I mentioned already. If you have difficulty making connections and don’t study as you go along, I can see how it would be easy to perceive biology as a meaningless series of difficult vocabulary words. If you can instead picture how everything works together, it becomes much easier to incorporate new information without feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Six students mentioned a lack of focus/motivation (this is a nonmajors class, after all). Of these, one wrote, “Biology doesn’t click and it’s not interesting” and another wrote, “I don’t enjoy biology, so it’s not interesting, so it’s hard to learn.” As an instructor who works really hard to help students see why biology is interesting and relevant, these comments are painful to read. If I take the “glass half full” attitude, I could remind myself that only a few students feel that way and that I can’t please everyone. On the “glass half empty” side, I could ask myself what I could do differently to open students’ eyes to biology.

Since students can quickly get bored with subjects they perceive to be incomprehensible, maybe the best thing I can do is to shift my gaze back to the “difficulty in understanding” response that led off this blog post. I already use clicker questions in nearly every class, and the questions focus on understanding (not factual recall). However, perhaps more of them should focus on the big picture instead of on specific processes. We also draw concept maps frequently in Action Center, every few weeks in lab, and occasionally in lecture; perhaps I should work more of them into lecture.

I also provide many resources on my website, but maybe too many students focus on the old exams and not enough of them dig into the Guided Reading Questions. These resources, which you can see on my teaching website, direct students to the most relevant Mastering Concepts, multiple choice, and Write it Out questions from the textbook; I also sprinkle in occasional lists of words they can assemble into concept maps. (Do my “Guided Reading Questions” need a snappier name? Maybe so…I am open to suggestions!) One good way to show them off might be to develop a team exercise, either for class or Action Center, in which each student answers a Guided Reading Question or completes a concept map and then a neighbor “grades” it. That way, they can get practice using an at-home resource and get quick feedback on how they’re doing.

Next time, I’ll share the answers to questions 2 and 3. In the meantime, what are your students’ obstacles, and what are your best ideas for helping students to overcome them?

This entry was posted in Course design, Engaging students, Learning at home, Study skills, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Obstacles, part 1

  1. Jim Lemire says:

    Just wanted to reply that I can relate to your frustrations over the students’ approach to memorizing vs making the connections. I teach a foundation biology course for education majors, most of whom would self-describe as “not a science person”. I always ask them in the beginning of the semester what they dislike about science in general and biology in particular. The most common answer is that they “aren’t good at memorizing” or that biology is a bunch of “disconnected facts”. They’ve had poor past experiences and they have come to expect any biology class will be more of the same. So they don’t like biology and do not perform well because they are stuck in the memorization mode…even though I make every attempt possible to avoid rewarding rote memorization. I continually emphasize the importance of connecting the dots and seeing how one concept leads to another – for example, how understanding protein structure helps understand gene expression which helps understand mutations which helps understand alleles and patterns of inheritance, which helps understand evolutionary processes. Yet, despite my best efforts, many of these same students revert to just trying to memorize vocabulary words and the various shapes I draw on the board to demonstrate a process…as opposed to making an effort to understand the process. My exams are not filled with vocab and fill in the blanks, yet students continually expect it to be and so prepare in exactly the same way that they indicate is why they perform poorly and dislike the course. If they approached the material like they say they would like to (not via rote memorization), they would actually perform better. But they just can’t seem to break the cycle and I am not sure how to help them.

    • Thanks for your thoughts! At this point in the semester, many of my students are finally starting to get serious. I’m getting lots of office hour visits from students who want to know how to study more effectively. Although I wish they would start this process before exam 1 instead of just before exam 3, it’s still gratifying to get to “coach” students into better study habits. The time I invest will pay off in their success in future courses as well — or at least that’s what I tell myself!

  2. Pingback: On Obstacles, part 2 | Teaching nonmajors biology

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