Research ArticleSCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY

Reducing achievement gaps in undergraduate general chemistry could lift underrepresented students into a “hyperpersistent zone”

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Science Advances  10 Jun 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 24, eaaz5687
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz5687

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  • RE: Progress toward making general chemistry more equitable and inclusive
    • Rebecca Harris, Data scientist
    • Other Contributors:
      • Michael R. Mack, Data scientist
      • Jasmine Bryant, Associate Professor (teaching), University of Southern California
      • Elli J. Theobald, Assistant Teaching Professor, University of Washington
      • Scott Freeman, Lecturer Emeritus, University of Washington

    We strongly endorse Cooper and Klymkowsky’s call for instructors in general chemistry and other STEM disciplines to reform course design in three mutually reinforcing ways: 1) what we teach, 2) how we teach, and 3) how we assess students and assign grades. In general chemistry, exciting inroads have been made on all three fronts, including innovative curricula that emphasize applying concepts to issues that are highly relevant to students [1, 2], high structure or flipped approaches that emphasize pre-class preparation and intensive active learning in class [3, 4], and more sophisticated approaches to assessment that improve alignment with learning objectives and course goals [5, 6].

    In terms of interpreting our paper, however, it is important to offer a clarification: During the study period, there was no “curving” in the sense of failing a pre-set percentage of students, and the DFW rates reported in Figure 3 were far less than the 30% suggested in Cooper and Klymkowsky’s letter. Instead, grades among sections within the same term were normalized to a common median. Nonetheless, their point is well-taken: Students, instructors, and the STEM professions are much better-served by grading systems that are mastery-based and explicitly non-competitive.

    Finally, although Cooper and Klymkowsky’s letter appears to challenge our statement that “the literature still lacks an example of a revised course design in general chemistry that results in reduced or no achie...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Unnecessary obstacles hampering equity in education
    • Melanie Cooper, Professor / Science Education Researcher, Michigan State University
    • Other Contributors:
      • Mike Klymkowsky, Professor / Science Education Researcher, University of Colorado Boulder

    The paper by Harris et. al. [1] confirms what most of us already know [2]; poorly designed gateway courses hinder the inclusion and success of under-represented students in STEM: these students often perform more poorly than their academic records would predict. What is interesting is the observation that under-represented students who "just" pass general chemistry are more likely to be persistent in STEM than their well-represented peers. The difference between a C, which allows a student to proceed, and a C–, which requires them to retake the course, has a profound and symbolic impact on students sense of inclusion.

    So what does this grade difference "mean"? particularly since the courses used in their analysis were “curved”, an abominable practice without pedagogical justification that explicitly pre-judges students while ignoring flaws in course design and instructional practice. What if the "bottom" 30% of the students (a common cut off) don't deserve to fail? Isn’t the insistence on curving grades an implicit acknowledgement that either the curriculum or the instructor is not
    effective?

    In the paper, the authors state that “the literature still lacks an example of a revised course design in general chemistry that results in reduced or no achievement gaps”, however, there IS an evidence-based curriculum that has been shown to improve both student persistence and learning outcomes [3, 4]. Better course design remo...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.

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