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?