Student Interest is the Strongest Determinant of Success in Introductory College Courses Related to Environmental Science

Friday 2:00pm Weeks Geo: AB20
Oral Presentation


Nick Balster, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Melanie Spero, California Institute of Technology

This study examined how student background impacts learning by assessing four predictive aspects of academic performance in environmental science college courses:

  1. student interest in environmental science
  2. previous environmental science education
  3. childhood exposure to the environment
  4. childhood residence setting

Nearly 800 students were surveyed in 12 environmental science college courses to determine which aspects of background predict success (measured by final grade) in the course. Interest in the natural environment was found to be the strongest predictor of success, where students that reported greater interest in the natural environment had increased odds of academic success. Childhood residence setting was also strongly related of student success, where students that grew up in increasingly rural communities showed an increase in their odds of academic success. Additionally, one demographic question, class rank, was shown to predict success, with higher ranked students (e.g. seniors) more likely to succeed than lower ranked students (e.g. freshmen). Conversely, previous environmental science education and childhood exposure to the environment were not found to predict the final grade in environmental science college courses. While instructors cannot influence the types of communities their students comes from or their students' class ranks, it is important to be aware of these disparities and adjust teaching or institutional practices as needed. Moreover, these data suggest revising some long held assumptions of motivation and student learning. Ultimately, these findings may help instructors identify at-risk students and also inform teaching practices that support learning for all students regardless of background.