Gail Horowitz noticed something peculiar about the first-generation students who were struggling in her chemistry classes. They studied as hard as their classmates. So why weren’t they doing as well?
That question led Horowitz, then a lecturer of chemistry at City University of New York Brooklyn College, to explore the challenges facing students who are the first in their families to go to college. They had drive and determination, she learned, but often lacked the skills needed to do well in rigorous courses.
Some of the mistakes first-gen students make are common to undergraduates: They focus on re-reading and memorizing to absorb what they’re learning, rather than summarizing material in their own words, or quizzing themselves, which are more effective techniques. But many also carry the burden of imposter syndrome – feeling like they don’t belong in college – or simply don’t know how college works. That, says Horowitz, discourages them from seeking out their professors during office hours or heading to the tutoring center for help. As a result they may spin their wheels even more furiously as they fall behind.
At Brooklyn College about 45 percent of students have parents without college degrees, Horowitz notes, so understanding the root causes of her students’ struggles was central to her work as an instructor. “You assume it’s an academic background thing,” she says. “But the initial research I did showed that students who sought help are successful.”
Horowitz, who now works at Bard High School Early College Newark as a faculty member in chemistry, reached out to me after I
the importance of helping undergraduates develop the metacognitive skills necessary to become effective learners. It turns out, she’s written a book about some of those strategies, tailored to the needs of first-generation students.
She feels strongly that instructors should teach study skills to their students, rather than leaving that up to academic advisers or tutors. Not only are first-gen students less likely to seek out help, she says, they might not even know that they’re doing anything wrong.
“Almost all failing and borderline students tell me that they are studying and studying hard (typically 10 to 15 hours per week for my course alone),” she writes in
Teaching STEM to First Generation College Students: A Guidebook for Faculty & Future Faculty
. “But I then follow up by asking
they are studying. And most frequently I find that students who report that they are working very hard, yet are doing very poorly,
are simply studying in the wrong way.
It’s not surprising that first-gen students may simply focus on re-reading and memorizing rather than asking themselves whether their strategies are effective, Horowitz says. Doubling down makes sense if you come from a family where getting ahead requires working harder, like taking on a second or third job.
Horowitz designed the book to appeal to a mass audience of STEM faculty. “The most effective person to tell students how to study for a particular course is the instructor,” she says. “They can easily put little pointers in their classroom about how students should be studying. I believe that could be revolutionary for first-generation college students.”
Horowitz suggests putting study tips into the syllabus and then reviewing them in class. These strategies may seem obvious to professors, she says, but not necessarily to students. The main one, she says, is to focus on problem solving, not reading: “If you have six hours a week to study for this course,” she says she tells students, “spend one hour a week reading and five hours doing problems.”
Another strategy she includes in her teaching: Explain how to use problem sets effectively. If you master one kind of problem set, move to the next group rather than doing every single one, or apply what you’ve learned in a different context. Don’t do problems while looking at the answer key. Also, don’t do problems without checking to see if your answers are right (she has seen students do both).
In reading-oriented classes, she recommends that, after reading each chapter, students write a single paragraph that synthesizes and summarizes the material. And on tests she often lists the amount of time students should spend on each problem. She started doing that after seeing students get stuck on one problem and then fail the test because they didn’t skip over it and move on.
She also lists a number of resources in her syllabus, including her office hours and the address and hours of the campus tutoring center. “This sends the message that this is normal,” she says. “You’re supposed to seek help; this is part of your job.”
Horowitz is unabashed about tracking down struggling students. “Please see me,” she’ll write on returned tests and quizzes. Students are more likely to come to her office if they feel like they have to, she notes. “For most of them it’s a big sense of relief that they’re having a conversation with you,” she says. “Most have been suffering in silence for a long time.”
If she has one piece of advice for her fellow instructors, it’s this: Don’t stereotype your first-generation students. They may not say a word in class. They may show up late. They may struggle. They may not use office hours. But that doesn’t mean students aren’t trying. They may simply be too busy, or overwhelmed, to ask for help. Reach out, she says. It will pay off for both of you.
Beth McMurtie, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education.