What Do We Miss about Students' Individual Decision Making by

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Editorial Cite This: J. Chem. Educ. 2019, 96, 1537−1538


What Do We Miss about Students’ Individual Decision Making by Focusing Only on Overall Trends? Thomas A. Holme*

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Department of Chemistry, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011, United States ABSTRACT: Many in the higher education community, including chemistry educators, are appropriately worried about trends in retention, often at both the local and national levels. Such trends inherently distill the experiences of individuals within large groups of students into larger samples in order to understand how the trends themselves may be evolving. While this focus is reasonable and appropriate, research about how individuals make choices about their academic identities is arguably at the core of the trends. One area of research, the application of narrative methodology for individual decision making, presents an interesting template for such consideration. This research is interesting, because anecdotally many chemistry instructors likely hear expressions from students who are stopping their study of chemistry that are akin to the observations of the research base. Considering a new scholarly synthesis of how individuals find their way into and, most importantly, out of the study of chemistry is a useful complement to the larger studies about trends in retention. KEYWORDS: General Public, Curriculum, Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary, Professional Development


chemistry instructors. After all, chemistry offers service courses that are often identified as having a large influence on student persistence in the sciences. The work of Holmegaard and colleagues looks at the transition process from secondary school to higher education and explicitly focuses on how positive outcomes arise. Such cases usually include strong contributions of “student integration, engagement, and empowerment” in their chosen field. In particular, students who succeed in the study of science in higher education do so by a process through which they negotiate their own identities within a context of the culture of a program that students most importantly encounter when they begin their college or university career. They note that this process is challenging for students and typically involves interconnected facets of (1) identifying and negotiating various interests, (2) personalizing their choice of narrative, (3) trying out the narrative they’ve constructed in social relations, and ultimately (4) challenging the narrative.3 The core methodology of the research project was to interview students in the final months of secondary school about their expectations for higher education and then interview them again later, either in higher education or in some cases during a “gap year”. In this way, circumstances were identified in which the difference between expectations and experienced reality were considered large or small, thus segmenting the population of students into two groups. Then, within each group, the processes by which students defined and adjusted their identities as scientists were categorized as well. First, for what one might hope is a positive observation, there are students who experienced small expectation gaps. Unfortunately they often did so because they did not expect anything interesting to happen at the start of their studies. Then, perhaps unsurprisingly given research about student

had the opportunity recently to attend a meeting of the Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE) of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) held in Paris in July 2019. This is a fascinating meeting to attend to hear about the many ways that chemists and chemistry educators are thinking about the teaching and learning of chemistry around the world. One recurring theme, however, stood out in terms of the frequency with which it was mentioned. Particularly during reports from representatives from several countries to the committee, the assertion was made that the number of students interested in chemistry as a major or a career was in decline, not only in their country but seemingly in nearly every country. The focus of these discussions tended to be directed toward factors such as the content curriculum, student readiness to study chemistry, or teaching methods as the source of concern. Retention of students in chemistry has been a frequent and regular topic of articles in this Journal, including recently.1,2 These curricular conversations are certainly worth pursuing; however, if the discussion derives primarily from quantitative overall trends, how does that help us understand the decisionmaking process of the individuals who, when summed, create those trends? An interesting set of studies3−7 that use the application of narrative methodology and that have been published over the past several years may provide a different perspective on how individual student decisions can be envisioned. The work from Holmegaard, Ulriksen, and Madsen has generally considered how students make choices regarding their studies in higher education, including the role that expectation mismatches play in decision making. Context may be important in this work, as the studies focus on students in Scandinavian higher education who may be less likely to change degree programs in their university studies than those in other regions of the world. Nonetheless, the concept of considering the individual student identity narrative and how it is negotiated as students begin their college careers may be an idea worth exploring for © 2019 American Chemical Society and Division of Chemical Education, Inc.

Published: August 13, 2019 1537

DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.9b00681 J. Chem. Educ. 2019, 96, 1537−1538

Journal of Chemical Education


expectations in chemistry laboratory learning, for example,8,9 the majority of students who participated in the research experienced relatively large gaps between expectations and what they actually experienced. In many cases, the gap is associated with content, as early curricula in the sciences often require foundational courses, including chemistry. Students may tend to experience these courses as poorly aligned with their interests and expectations. This clash of expectations may be exacerbated for any given student who constructs a narrative about himself or herself that, while most or all students experience hard, seemingly unconnected classes, students other than the given student are better prepared to deal with those classes. The other key aspect of Holmegaard and colleagues’ work is the categorization of strategies students use to change their identity narratives as they encounter mismatches between expectations and reality. In some cases, whether the mismatch is large or small, students are able to maintain their narratives with only a few, arguably modest, adjustments. Students tell themselves that the beginning of the curriculum is always difficult and that they just have to persevere. Alternatively, they may maintain their interest but no longer integrate that interest with the curriculum these students are studying. In the studies, examples of this strategy are drawn from computer science; let us consider students who have an interest in biochemistry and find that they will not take a course in biochemistry until the third year of college. A student in this group might be inclined to go through the motions and do the required coursework, while spending more time pursuing informal avenues related to biochemistry. Some students, however, find themselves making repeated changes in their narratives and often find the adjustments unsuccessful in maintaining key aspects of their self-images as (future) scientists. Like the previously noted group, these students trying to adjust may also think in terms of their studies becoming more interesting later, as the curriculum progresses. Nonetheless, their experience of the early course learning (and teaching) environment tends to present challenges followed only by more challenges.4 This type of experience, where the identity feels like it has to be renegotiated continuously, adds significant stress and, accordingly, risk factors for such students remaining in their initial curricular choice.5 This editorial presents only a glimpse of the studies from Holmegaard and co-workers. Nonetheless, it seems likely that those who teach in large general and organic chemistry courses can relate these snippets to experiences they have with students in their courses. As I read the articles, I could hear the statements made in conversations I’ve had with students who were asking me to sign a drop slip for general chemistry. Those students were often expressing their identity narrative as they noted the choices they were making about leaving the general chemistry course I was teaching. It is pretty tempting, particularly when teaching hundreds of students, to look at the trajectory of course success in a quantitative, overall sense. The work by Holmegaard and colleagues suggests that the individual students whose collective decision making builds the trends also seem well worth investigating.


Thomas A. Holme: 0000-0003-0590-5848 Notes

Views expressed in this editorial are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the ACS. Thomas A. Holme is a Morrill Professor in the Department of Chemistry, Iowa State University. His research has two distinct strands: chemical education research, and human−computer interaction. He served as Director of the Examinations Institute of the American Chemical Society from 2002 to 2015 and conducts education research to improve the quality of information that can be obtained from exams and other forms of assessment. His current work in human−computer interaction is focused on the development and testing of augmented reality interfaces for use in chemistry education. He is the editor-in-chief designee of the Journal and will become editor-in-chief on January 1, 2020.


(1) Cohen, R.; Kelly, A. M. Community College Chemistry Coursetaking and STEM Academic Persistence. J. Chem. Educ. 2019, 96 (1), 3−11. (2) Frey, R. F.; Fink, A.; Cahill, M. J.; McDaniel, M. A.; Solomon, E. D. Peer-Led Team Learning in General Chemistry I: Interactions with Identity, Academic Preparation, and a Course-Based Intervention. J. Chem. Educ. 2018, 95 (12), 2103−2113. (3) Holmegaard, H. T. Performing a Choice-Narrative: A Qualitative Study of the Patterns in STEM students’ Higher Education Choices. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 2015, 37, 1454−1477. (4) Holmegaard, H. T.; Madsen, L. M.; Ulriksen, L. To Choose or Not To Choose Science: Constructions of Desirable Identities among Young People Considering a STEM Higher Education Programme. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 2014, 36, 186−215. (5) Holmegaard, H. T.; Madsen, L. M.; Ulriksen, L. A Journey of Negotiation and Belonging: Understanding Students’ Transitions to Science and Engineering in Higher Education. Cult. Stud. Sci. Educ. 2014, 9, 755−786. (6) Holmegaard, H. T.; Ulriksen, L. M.; Madsen, L. M. The Process of Choosing What to Study: A Longitudinal Study of Upper Secondary Students’ Identity Work When Choosing Higher Education. Scand. J. Educ. Res. 2014, 58, 21−40. (7) Ulriksen, L. M.; Holmegaard, H. T.; Madsen, L. M. Weaving a Bridge of Sense: Students’ Narrative Constructions as a Lens for Understanding Students’ Coping with the Gap between Expectancies and Experiences When Entering Higher Education. Eur. Educ. Res. J. 2013, 12, 310−319. (8) Grove, N.; Bretz, S. L. CHEMX: An Instrument to Assess Students’ Cognitive Expectations for Learning Chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 2007, 84 (9), 1524−1529. (9) Santos-Diaz, S.; Hensiek, S.; Owings, T.; Towns, M. H. Survey of Undergraduate Students’ Goals and Achievement Strategies of Laboratory Coursework. J. Chem. Educ. 2019, 96 (5), 850−856.


Corresponding Author

*E-mail: [email protected] 1538

DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.9b00681 J. Chem. Educ. 2019, 96, 1537−1538