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Student confidence: Appreciating toolboxes

Posted by Melissa on December 3, 2008

A recent Tomorrow’s Professor posting titled, “Why Students Lose Confidence”, by Mica Hutchison-Green, highlighted some results of a study she published in the Journal of Engineering Education on the self-confidence of introductory engineering students. This study found that engineering students in their first term of college changed from evaluating success by obstacles overcome to evaluating success by the comparison of personal performance to that of their peers, and this comparative evaluation often led to a loss of self-confidence. Intrigued by the post, I hunted down the original study, and I must say I wasn’t wowed by the numbers. The conclusions were made through interviews with less than 10 students at the start of the year and at mid-semester, and the students weren’t necessarily the same students each time. To me, this seems to be an extremely small group on which to make any large scale conclusions, but the findings do resonate with personal experience and observations.

I’ve been concerned about the student confidence issue this fall as I’ve had conversations with several talented students (both undergraduate and graduate students) who are questioning their place in the physics community, where my use of the term physics community is meant to be very broadly interpreted. I’ve been thinking about how perspectives on intelligence and academic achievement, particularly in science and engineering fields, can wear down the confidence of promising students, and I’ve also been pondering what, if anything, would ameliorate these issues.

Anyone who has ever pursued a physics major or career has probably had some version of the following conversation with a stranger.

Curious stranger: “What do you do?”

Me: “I’m a physicist.”

Curious stranger: “Oh, you must be smart.”

The flip side of this is the internal conversation that I had numerous times, particularly when I was in graduate school.

Curious me : “Why are you doing this?”

Physicist me: “Because physics is really interesting.”

Curious me : “But you aren’t smart enough to do physics. Only really smart people do physics.”

Talking with others in physics, I know I’m not the only person who has had this conversation though there are probably plenty of physicists who are confident enough of their choices and abilities that they never experienced this particular internal monologue. The problem comes when we lose bright, talented students because they feel they can’t stack up with the guy who is always answering questions in class or the gal who plows through problem sets without ever seeming to get stuck.

Hutchison-Green in the Tomorrow’s Professor post writes, “When students find themselves in situations where they perceive their performance to be inferior to their peers’, they lose confidence. How can educators help students avoid discouragement? One way would be for faculty to remind students that they come from different social and educational backgrounds, which have prepared them to take different approaches to their coursework.”

Scott Page’s book The Difference has given me a useful framework for considering these issues. I find a lot about Page’s book intriguing, but the concepts that are most relevant to this discussion are those found in Chapter 5 on measuring sticks and toolboxes. In educational settings, we often use traditional measuring sticks to evaluate students. SATs, GREs, and exams all produce a one-dimensional measuring stick by which we can compare individuals. The problem, however, is that intelligence is not one-dimensional and neither is potential for future success. Nevertheless, students often look at where they fall on these measuring sticks and if they aren’t at the top of the scale, they assume that they are less likely to be successful in the future than those who are at the top. But individuals are multi-dimensional creatures, and the best way to evaluate the potential contribution of an individual is not to measure a single performance with a measuring stick but rather evaluate his or her complete cognitive toolbox. Each individual has a different set of tools, and individuals can build their toolboxes in a unique manner. Some people have few tools, but know how to use them extremely well. Others have lots of tools, but perhaps don’t always know which tools to use and when. Some individuals have unique combinations of tools that no one else has or use tools in different ways than the norm. Recognizing that no two individuals have the same toolbox, that different types of problems require different combinations of tools, and that tools can always be added to the toolbox helps dispel the myth that any one individual has a better toolbox than another. To be a physics major, a certain minimum number of tools are required, but beyond that, toolboxes can’t be ranked as they are all different. And a toolbox is not fixed, more tools can always be acquired, refined, and used in unique ways.

But how do we as teachers help students appreciate the toolbox metaphor, particularly when we use measuring sticks to assign grades? I think this is a thorny issue. When physics courses consist of problem sets, more problems sets, and exams, students with particular tool boxes will be advantaged. If indeed we believe the toolbox metaphor, faculty should create assignments and activities that will highlight the strengths and contributions of students who have different toolboxes. Creativity, curiosity, writing skills, patience, ability to work well with your hands (for experimentalists), thinking on your feet, working effectively with others (leading, listening, and nurturing a group), steadfastness in the face of challenges, open-mindedness to new ideas—these are all important tools for a physicist to have, and in our classes, we don’t often provide genuine opportunities for students who have strong toolboxes in these areas to highlight their unique skills. Physics classes tend to heavily favor those students who already have a strong problem-solving toolbox. These students appear to “get things” faster, but in reality, these students simply start with more tools in this area or find it easy to acquire particular types of tools. Granted not every student can acquire every tool with the same degree of ease, but it’s certainly useful to remember the toolbox is a dynamic collection that can be built. If we can help students evaluate their toolboxes, recognize tools they want to acquire, and assess how their personal toolbox changes as a result of their education, then we can help students move away from comparing toolboxes with their peers and rather building toolboxes that will meet their future goals. Of course, this is easier said than done, but acknowledging the challenges is always a reasonable first step.

How do you help students move beyond measuring stick comparisons and focus on the toolboxes they are building?


5 Responses to “Student confidence: Appreciating toolboxes”

  1. Kevin said


    This is completely and utterly unrelated to the above post, but when I saw it the first thing I thought of was was the centipede moving at near speed of light and the cleavers…

    Kevin Draper

  2. agm said

    This articulates pretty well how I knew I wouldn’t get a PhD out of my project. If they ever find more money, someone might be able to , but I didn’t have the tools necessary to pull it off. Frankly, I’m sure the approach can’t work anyways, but that could easily be my lack of the right skill set.

    I pulled off the amazing feat of reverse engineering a nearly undocumented PhD project just to get my starting point. I did statistical and theoretical work that my advisor and the previous student on the project lacked the background to do. I could coherently explain to my advisor that no, I wasn’t going to do a certain thing she asked — it would be months of effort, when I already knew it wouldn’t work because her mathematics were incorrect (can’t ignore the non-linearities of the data the way she wanted to). I spent 3-4 months investigating a variety of new tools to see what might allow progress only to get accused of sitting on my butt doing nothing, even lined up my own funding at the end, which took 3 months to get the advisor to do paperwork for. Time for a new advisor and a new topic.

    After 10 years undergrad and grad school, I couldn’t stomach another 2-4 years in school, started retraining for the petroleum industry.

  3. rob said

    my version of a conversation with a stranger goes like this:

    Curious stranger: “What do you do?”
    Me: “I’m a physicist.”
    Curious stranger: “Oh, you must be smart.”
    Me: “nah, if I was smart I wouldn’t have stayed in grad school so long.”

    as it turns out, i left physics grad school just before starting my PhD thesis.

    there was no single reason why i left. it was the culmination of many things, one of them being that i didn’t think i was smart enough, and doubted my abilities.

    i was in experimental condensed matter physics. i built a UHV STM from scratch. i published papers in my area of research. i was surrounded by talented experimentalists. i felt mediocre.

    on an intellectual level, i knew because of what i accomplished that i wasn’t stupid.

    i liked building instrumentation, but actually using it for research was not as rewarding as teaching. if i hadn’t had the chance to lead lectures, labs and recitations in grad school, i would have left much sooner.

    i am presently employed at a material research lab using my physics experience, so grad school wasn’t a waste of time. however, since my real joy is teaching physics, i would rather be teaching at a SLC. however, my lack of an piece of paper saying “PhD” bars me from doing so.

    so for me, i had the proper tools, i just wasn’t applying them properly to build the career i imagined. but the effect was the same.

  4. Steve Meisburger said

    Hi Arjendu:
    My typical coffee shop conversation goes like this;

    Stranger: you’re a graduate student? what do you study?
    Me: physics.
    Stranger: wow, you must be smart.
    Me: oh, well, actually I’m only a biophysicist…

    Taking my Q exam next Tuesday, so I thought I’d give this tip: the best way to keep from “losing confidence” is relentless, persistent denial. Wish me luck (not that I need it. heh heh)! And best of luck to you in this new year.

  5. arjendu said

    Thanks Steve. And good luck with the quals. But do need to point out that this was Melissa’s writing, not me … Happy New Year, all.

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