Struggles with Academic Confidence

2 Posted by - September 28, 2016 - Organic Chemistry class

I got 57% on my first Organic Chemistry quiz. That’s right I got 57% on my first quiz. Okay…the hard part if over…I have revealed my shame. I have always been a good student and worked hard and taken performing at my best very seriously. I have never received a grade of 57% in my life so it was a bit devastating to me. But there is more to the story.

My first quiz returned – 8/14 or 57%

The class average on this quiz was about 57%. I have no prior knowledge of, or vocabulary related to general chemistry which is a prerequisite for this introductory organic chemistry course. The other students should have this but for many this is one of the most challenging courses they will face because it is like learning a new language. When I visited the professor’s office hours yesterday morning he said “don’t worry, you are doing okay…it will come…the learning matters not the grade” and I felt a little less frustrated with myself.

I have realized some things about the experience our students have:

1) Not performing as well as you are used to is hard

Given my experience getting that 57% on my quiz, I spent some time thinking about the student who does really well in high school. The student who wins awards and comes into the university with a high entering average. The student who has always thought of themselves as a good student and has been praised by friends, teachers and family for being successful in school. The student who then comes to university and has a rough time adjusting to the learning environment, the pace of the 12 week semester, the independence and self direction required to manage all the demands. When that 90% student fails a test or gets a C- on a paper the blow to their self esteem and to their understanding of who they are and what they are capable of can be devastating. I had my own little moment of this when I got my quiz back but I can explain it all away…they may not be able to so easily. I am glad that at least the students in my class will find a professor committed to helping them learn and who is likely to leave them with encouraging words as they struggle. I know I appreciated this yesterday.

2) Dealing with being at a disadvantage

It has been a very long time since I was in a room listening to a lecture where I did not understand the material and felt completely lost. It is frustrating, demoralizing and I have had a surprisingly emotional reaction. For me confusion and frustration often manifests in tears. I didn’t really shed (too many) tears but I felt the very real emotional response to the frustration of not understanding, of working really hard trying to read the material and follow the logic and just not getting it. I know that this is an experience that many of our students have…some may be missing important foundational knowledge like me, some may not know how (or be too embarrassed) to ask for help when they are confused, some may not know how to study or not devote enough time to learning the material, some may be dealing with an undiagnosed learning disability. Our empathy for students who are (or think they are) working hard and still struggling with the material and course requirements will help us to be better at helping them…especially if they do know understand why they do not understand. I have the great privilege of completely understanding the source of my struggle – no chemistry background, no prerequisites, etc. – but that has not stopped me from the knee jerk reaction to not understanding when it appears the rest of of the students sitting around me do…What’s wrong with me?

A student’s question on the screen in class

3) The power of encouragement and support and learning to be realistic

Although I am having some regret about choosing this course I am determined to see it through. I left the professor’s office yesterday morning thinking I understood something that I had been struggling with and last night I sat at my dining room table and worked on the practice problems. I got more wrong than right and again became confused, frustrated and eventually abandoned the chemistry and watched TV instead. How many other students were having this very same experience last night? But the words of encouragement I have had from some of my staff and others…”don’t be so hard on yourself, you have no chemistry background”… and the professor’s words of encouragement are the things that will help me press on and keep trying to understand. My boss, the Interim Provost and VP, Academic is a chemist so I also have the opportunity to pepper him with questions when we see each other…at least until he tells me to stop.

This is all very low risk for me really – I don’t need an organic chemistry credit – my mark in the end doesn’t really matter other than my own expectations of myself and not wanting to fail at anything. I have no chemistry background. I have a very challenging and time consuming full time job. So I need to lighten up and be realistic about what I can accomplish. But the reality for many of our students is different. For most of them this is a required course for their program, they need to pass to move on and take the next level courses. And given the class average in the first quiz i know many of them are also struggling. But we all have to be realistic when setting expectations for ourselves. Its is not surprising that we see so much stress and anxiety in our students. Learning hard things is hard for some of us, and knowing what’s at stake makes it harder. Bring on the words of support and encouragement. They do help.

When I posted something on instagram about having to memorize all the functional groups a few weeks back,  my nephew who is in his third year of a chemistry degree at another institution posted a comment…”you can do it hlv!” I want to show him that I can do it, I want to show myself that I can do it. I don’t know if I can do it.  No pressure.

Last weeks lab activity – determining melting point of unknown substances