At the End, I’m Looking to the Start

I turned in my course grades yesterday and thought I’d spend some time looking back at something that my TAs asked our students in lab to write about during week 1. After the TAs introduced themselves and talked about their portion of the class, we asked the students to combine my own day 1 lecture with the TA presentations to answer this question:

What are some of the obstacles that you feel might keep you from being successful in BIOL 1005?


Motivated students attend a study session outside of class.

Now that the final course grades are in, I thought it might be worth looking back at the answers to see if students correctly anticipated their own obstacles. Some students listed just one; others listed multiple obstacles. I have typed each one below, so some students are represented more than once in each list.


Students who earned an A initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • Not being able to comprehend the material because “science is not my strong suit.”
  • “I’ve never been good at science.”
  • “I do not particularly like science because I do not feel I’m good at it.”
  • “I am not the best test-taker even if I study really hard.”
  • Not understanding lab materials or information
  • Not being able to understand the material
  • Having limited time to study (from a first-year student enrolled in 18 hours)
  • Having limited background in biology
  • Not asking for help when needed
  • Course intensity
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Not studying enough
  • Finding the class uninteresting and not being motivated to work hard

Students who earned a B initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • “I’m not a lover of science.”
  • “I’m not a biology or science person.”
  • “I really don’t like biology so I can get easily bored.”
  • “I am not science brained.”
  • “Science has never been my best subject.”
  • “I have always struggled with science.”
  • “Science was never my best subject in high school. It was hard to stay interested in the material because it seemed pointless and I couldn’t connect it to things in my life at the time.”
  • “I’m awful at science. I’ve never been good at it. I’ve always struggled with it.”
  • Limited past experience with biology and science
  • Past experiences with science classes pose a mental obstacle
  • Language (this from an international student with limited English skills)
  • Not understanding how to do labs
  • Not understanding how the concepts fit together
  • Limited math skills
  • Not being comfortable with my lab group
  • Not having a diligent lab partner
  • Adjusting to college life
  • Nothing can keep me from being successful if I try as hard as I can
  • Not being very outgoing
  • Workload
  • Workload
  • Not being able to keep up with the pace
  • Lack of motivation to work on a class in which I am not interested in the topic
  • Not putting in the effort needed to succeed
  • Forgetting due dates
  • Not completing assignments on time
  • Remembering to check for course updates every day
  • Having commitments that force me to fall behind
  • Struggling to stay focused

Students who earned a C initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • “Me and biology do not really get along. I don’t get science.”
  • “I am not very good at biology.”
  • “Science and math skills and biology are not subjects that come easy to me.”
  • “I’m not great at science.”
  • “I have always had trouble understanding science.”
  • “I have never been passionate about biology.”
  • “Science is not my favorite subject, and it isn’t a subject I’m naturally good at.”
  • “I am not a science oriented person and understanding does not come easily to me.”
  • “I’m not very good with sciences.”
  • “Any science class is not my easiest course.”
  • Limited experience with biology
  • Difficulty of biology
  • Confusing terminology in biology
  • Discouragement and frustration
  • Time management
  • Keeping priorities straight
  • Lack of attendance
  • Lack of concentration
  • Forgetting to do assignments
  • Getting behind on homework
  • Keeping up with what is due and when
  • Finding the right time and place to study

Students who earned a D, W, or F initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • “I have to reread sentences with scientific terms several times before I can understand them.”
  • “I am terrible at science and have a hard time learning from a book.”
  • “I’ve never been great at math or science.”
  • “I have much more of an English/History interest than science and math so understanding certain concepts might be difficult.”
  • “I’m not the best science student.”
  • Lack of interest in the subject
  • I can’t usually connect with microscopic biology
  • I have forgotten most of the stuff I have learned about science and biology
  • Lack of prior knowledge about science
  • Language (from an international student)
  • I don’t like just studying definitions; I like hands-on activities
  • I may struggle with computational questions
  • I don’t have the best study habits
  • Keeping up with assignments
  • Not having time to complete lab activities
  • Study skills
  • Time management
  • Lack of focus, cellular devices, and difficult lab partners
  • Work and class load (this from a student who has two jobs, works 40 hours a week, and enrolled in 23 credit hours)

You may have noticed that I colored some of the statements red. Those all refer to a perceived, inherent inability to understand science. I found it interesting that this mindset accounted for 31% of the statements among students who eventually earned an A, 28% of statements from those who earned a B, 45% from those who earned a C, and 26% from those who earned a D, W, or F. You can probably see whatever message you want in those numbers, but what I choose to see reinforces the idea that success in science has nothing to do with whether a student is “a science person.” Heck, I remember myself asserting (as an undergraduate) that I couldn’t take science classes because “I am not a science person,” but I had never actually tried. Once I took chemistry and earned an A, my mindset about my own abilities flipped 180 degrees.

I have recently been thinking a lot about fixed vs. growth mindset, a concept popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck. If you have a fixed mindset about biology, you believe that you can’t do much to change your limited science talent — it is a “fixed trait.” In other words, if you believe you are simply not a science person, why would you invest your precious time trying to learn about biology? On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset you believe that you can develop your talents with hard work and by learning from your mistakes. On behalf of my own students, I am keen to learn more about how to shift a fixed mindset into a growth mindset.

I also colored a few of the perceived obstacles green; these are not specific to science but rather seem to be rooted in student anxiety about keeping up with a challenging class in general. Finally, blue statements represent students’ self-perceived limitations in study skills or time management.

I found it interesting that students who eventually received an A or a B seemed more likely to express anxiety about how difficult the course would be than those who earned lower grades. Students who ended up with a C or below were honest that a major obstacle could be their general abilities as students. In essence, students who ultimately did better were more likely to blame “a course that’s just too hard” for poor performance, whereas students who ultimately did worse were more likely to blame themselves. That’s the opposite of what I would have expected.

This represents a small snapshot of just one semester, but it may provide a little insight into the student mind. How can we use this information to improve the odds of student success? That’s a good thought question for the upcoming break.

Thank you to Matt Taylor for help with this blog post.

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3 Responses to At the End, I’m Looking to the Start

  1. Pingback: Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Your Students | Teaching nonmajors biology

  2. Pingback: Instructors: Be kind to your future self | Teaching nonmajors biology

  3. Pingback: Mindset Matters for Teachers, Too | Teaching nonmajors biology

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