Since at least the 1970’s, successive U.S. Presidents have identified science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) as essential to American prosperity and security. Yet despite the allure of six figure starting salaries, demand for STEM related jobs continues to outpace the current and projected supply of qualified citizens. Workforce demands aside, a basic familiarity with STEM disciplines is increasingly important to a high functioning democracy. Even so, from the earliest grades through tertiary education, profound inequities and poor success rates are keeping too many students from becoming tomorrow’s engineers, scientists and healthcare professionals. 

Whether we call it a leaky pipeline, an antagonistic ecosystem, or something else, we are failing to meet a growing readiness and equity gap. Here are just a handful of data points underscoring the challenge:

  • Only 20 percent of US high school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors—and the learning loss resulting from the pandemic has only exacerbated this issue. 
  • 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. 
  • Black and Latinx students have a significantly higher probability of switching out of STEM majors and completing a degree in a non-STEM field.
  • 2 out of 3 US women say they were not encouraged to pursue a career in STEM.

There are no easy solutions, especially since encouraging and supporting students in their STEM journey necessarily begins in K-12. Yet it’s clear that holding to past traditions in higher ed is not the way forward.

Breaking with tradition

First, the ‘weed-out culture’ that persists in many STEM courses and that recently captured national headlines only disenfranchises more students. As a New York Times article noted, using courses to distinguish serious from non-serious students often does “a better job of distinguishing between students who have ample resources and those who don’t.” 

Second, STEM courses typically require high cost, low value textbooks that routinely do not keep pace with the speed of discovery in many fields. A recent survey found that only 34 percent of students considered textbooks ‘very helpful’ to their learning. 

Third, STEM courses traditionally lean on long lectures and infrequent, make-or-break high-stakes assessments, which are problematic in a number of ways.

While there are no easy fixes, we do know that active learning, whereby students are engaged in learning through discussions and problem-solving activities, has been shown to improve outcomes time and again. Active learning benefits all students but offers disproportionate benefits for individuals from underrepresented groups. Ample data suggests that evidence-based teaching practices like this also reduce or even eliminate achievement gaps in STEM courses and promote greater equity in higher education.

Learning without the risk

To really learn in these disciplines, students need to practice and make mistakes in a risk free environment where they won’t be penalized for being wrong. Frequent, low-stakes diagnostic and formative assessments that begin early and persist throughout STEM courses create important opportunities for students to practice and master essential concepts. With the right tools, they also generate data that students, faculty, and universities can leverage to shape interventions like tutoring services to ensure students maintain progress.

The weed out culture persists, in part, from a misguided belief that it represents rigor and the only way to improve outcomes is to lower standards. This is demonstrably false. Take the example of Stephanie Dillon, Director of Freshman Chemistry Laboratories at Florida State University. Her emphasis on active learning and consistent practice has reduced DFW rates for her course by more than half. To make this work for her class of more than 300 students, she uses a homework and assessment tool called Aktiv Learning, a company Top Hat recently acquired. Aktiv Learning allows students to practice a variety of different problem sets specifically designed for undergraduate chemistry and receive feedback that adapts to their individual progress.

The material students cover is no less rigorous—and in fact Dillon would argue it is more so. The key difference between the approach Dillon takes and more traditional approaches is the centrality of frequent low stakes opportunities for students to practice, to learn from mistakes, and to receive feedback to sustain engagement and support academic success. Dillon’s focus on continuing to fine-tune the learning experience is also the mindset we need to adopt more broadly if we are to ensure more students succeed. 

Making frequent assessments for learning a consistent part of the academic journey doesn’t just contribute to better grades. When students struggle and learn by experience that with effort and guidance they can master even the most challenging concepts, it builds confidence. And that’s one of the most important lessons we can teach, especially for students who haven’t been given the opportunity or encouragement they need to pursue their dreams.

Dr. Brad Cohen is the Chief Academic Officer at Top Hat and the former Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Ohio University.

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