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Minority Students with Grades Over a C May Be “Hyperpersistent” in STEM

african american researchers in lab
Underrepresented minority students were more likely than their peers to persist in STEM majors after receiving a C+ in general chemistry. | Rhoda Baer/National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons

Students from underrepresented groups who score below a C- in general chemistry are less likely to persist in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors than their classmates with similar grades, but they are more likely than their peers to persist if they earn a C+ or better, scientists report in the June 10 issue of Science Advances.

Rebecca Harris and colleagues from the University of Washington are the first to describe the "hyperpersistent zone," the range of grades just above a C that appear to encourage women and underrepresented minorities to stick with STEM-track courses at a higher rate than their white and Asian male peers. Better teaching methods and support systems could disproportionately improve the retention of underrepresented minority students in STEM, making these fields more equitable and even alleviating income inequality later in the students' careers, the authors write.

"This paper has good news and bad news," said Scott Freeman, biology professor at the University of Washington and senior author of the study. "The bad news is that achievement gaps are whopping."

Previous research shows the existence of such achievement gaps; students from underrepresented groups are just as interested in STEM majors as their peers when they start college, but they struggle to achieve good grades, and they change majors at higher rates. A 2016 study found that while 52% of STEM-interested Asian-American students and 43% of white students follow through with their STEM majors, only 22% of STEM-interested black students, 29% of Latino, and 25% of Native American students do.

To investigate the nature of this disparity, Freeman and his co-authors sought to test their "GenChem Hypothesis:" that general chemistry, a first-year course required by many STEM major programs, causes particular trouble for students and leads them to abandon their goals. The hypothesis was in part inspired by a conversation Freeman had with Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and the director of AAAS's SEA Change initiative, a program founded to support universities in making their STEM programs more equitable and inclusive.

"I struggled more in chemistry the further I got," said Malcom of her own experience as an undergraduate zoology student at the University of Washington. "Partly it was me, because I had come from an under-resourced, small, all-black high school in Birmingham, Alabama. And partly, it was the nature of the classes. They were big, they were all lecture, there were huge amounts of content. And there was almost an expectation that you should have had some of this already."

Malcom suspected, due both to her experience and to qualitative studies that asked students why they dropped out of STEM-track programs, that general chemistry is serving as a "weed-out course," one that discourages underperforming students from continuing with the major instead of educating them.

"I said to Scott, 'I really think that we should look at chemistry,'" Malcom recalled. "The other courses are challenging and everything, but they didn't necessarily feel like they were there to thin the herd. And so, I think that got him to thinking."

To test the hypothesis, Freeman and his team analyzed grade and demographic data from 25,768 University of Washington students who took general chemistry between 2001 and 2016. Their analysis confirmed that women, racial and ethnic minorities, students of low socioeconomic status, and first-generation college students scored, on average, 0.12 to 0.54 points lower than their classmates on a four-point grade scale. These gaps were present even if the underrepresented students had similar educational backgrounds as their peers and were performing just as well as them before college. If these students passed the class, but with a grade below C, they were more likely than peers who scored similarly to drop chemistry the next semester.

However, if students from underrepresented groups achieved a C or higher, they were much more likely to continue with chemistry than were white and Asian males, showing that slightly encouraging grades may have made them especially persistent.

"If we just gave the students half a chance, they would take off," said Freeman. "They're motivated. They're resilient. They're persistent. And that, to me, is really exciting."

Freeman's previous research hints at how professors can help their students into the hyperpersistent zone. In 2011, he and his team published research showing that biology professors can close achievement gaps between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students in their classes by employing "active learning" techniques, whereby professors use class time not to lecture, but to have students collaborate on solving problems and analyzing data. Freeman suspects similar techniques in general chemistry would help underrepresented minority students get their grades into the hyperpersistent zone, disproportionately improving their retention in the class.

"We have a big problem," Freeman said, "but the optimistic scenario is that we have a solution, and students are going to respond if we deliver."

Researchers still need to confirm that the hyperpersistence effect is present at other universities, Freeman said. Most university registrars keep similar grade and demographic records as the University of Washington data Freeman and his team used, so their analysis could easily be replicated elsewhere. Researchers also need to investigate precisely what otherwise high-performing minority students are experiencing in general chemistry that negatively impacts their performance relative to their classmates.

But lecturers shouldn't wait to put this study's lessons into practice, said Freeman.

"There are protests going on in the streets all across the world saying 'it's time for racial justice now. Like, right now,'" he said. "As a college instructor, you can say, 'I can change my course and start working on these kinds of outcomes right now.'"