SAGE Musings: Who Has the Capacity to Succeed in STEM?

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Oct 11, 2018 9:39am

I had an epiphany many years ago. It was in a workshop for geoscience faculty members in their first few years of teaching. One of the workshop leaders told us about a study conducted by Uri Treisman at the University of California, Berkeley. He had noticed that the minority students in his calculus course performed considerably better (Asian students) or considerably worse (Black and Hispanic students) than White students. Rather than assuming that this was a function of their ability to learn calculus, he set out to find out why. And find out he did. It wasn't about their capacity to learn calculus; it was about their study habits.

My epiphany, which sounds incredibly obvious in retrospect, was that a student's performance in a course depends on many factors, including, but (duh!) in no way limited to their capacity to learn the course material. As obvious as this is, we sometimes lose sight of this very basic truth. When we do, and we fall into the trap of thinking that students just "don't have what it takes to succeed" in math, or science, or geoscience, or STEM, or college, we are caught in the snare of "deficit thinking." I may someday write a Musing about deficit thinking. But today I want to focus instead on the magic that can happen when we accept the premise that all of our students -- ALL of them, not just the ones who appear to be "smart" -- have the capacity to succeed and even thrive in our courses.

Which brings me back to Uri Treisman at UC-Berkeley. Treisman (1992) wrote, "I was becoming increasingly interested in how students actually learn calculus. Do they use a textbook? With whom do they discuss homework assignments? What do they do when they get stuck on a problem?" (p. 363-364). He and his colleagues got a grant to explore these questions. The funding organization asked them what their hypotheses were. Treisman (1992) wrote, "We really didn't have a clue. We had to develop our hypotheses quickly so we asked a few thousand people who didn't have a clue either and made bar graphs displaying the distribution of their responses -- a sorry view of social science research" (p. 364). The hypotheses they produced? Differences in success in calculus could be attributed to differences in student motivation, preparation (prior math courses), lack of family support or understanding of higher education, or differences in socio-economic status (p. 364-365). Do these sound familiar? Treisman's research group found that none of those correlated with performance in calculus courses at UC-Berkeley. Let that sink in.

Their methodology, as he describes it: "We decided to move in with the students and to videotape them at work." They chose 40 students for the study; 20 Chinese students and 20 Black students. What they discovered is that Chinese students had formed study groups at the beginning of the term, and they worked collaboratively to learn the material. They asked each other questions, they tutored each other in solving practice problems, they checked each other's homework, and they worked problems from old exams, which were available in the library. Black students, on the other hand, studied alone. For the most part, they didn't ask any questions, perhaps (and I'm speculating here) for fear of confirming the stereotype that they weren't as smart as White students.

Treisman could have stopped there. Or he could have recommended that the Black and Hispanic students form study groups, and left it up to them. But instead, he and his colleagues developed a math "workshop": an "anti-remedial" class that was paired with the regular calculus course, offering challenging problems to solve. The course emphasized collaborative problem solving and a sense of community based on a shared interest in mathematics. Treisman (1992) explained, "Our goal was then and continues to be now not merely helping students pass calculus or even to excel at it but, rather, producing mathematicians (or at least students who could pursue graduate work in the field if they chose to do so)" (p. 368). And the results were dramatic. Black and Latino participants in the program significantly outperformed their White and Asian classmates.

I confess that I had never actually read his paper, "Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College," until this week, in preparation for writing this Musing. What a treat I had missed until now! It's beautifully written, and an "easy read." I'll leave you with one of his closing thoughts: "The challenge is to reconfigure undergraduate science and mathematics education in ways that will inspire students to make the choices we have made" (p. 372). We can start by normalizing the behaviors that lead to academic success, including active learning and collaborative problem solving. We can also assume that EVERY student in our classes has the capacity to succeed in STEM.


Treisman, Uri, 1992. Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College. The College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 23, No. 5 (Nov., 1992), pp. 362-372.

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