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Diversity and inclusion

A poor introductory science degree grade has ‘devastating’ effect on students from under-represented groups

30 Sep 2022
Students in a lecture
Stepping back: a poor grade in an introductory course can reduce the chance of under-represented groups going on to obtain a science degree. (Courtesy: iStock/Steve-Debenport)

People from under-represented minority groups who earn low marks in introductory science degree courses are less likely to continue studying science compared to white male students who earn similar marks. That is according to a new US study, which finds that even a single poor grade can greatly reduce the chances of students from such groups from taking science further (PNAS Nexus).

There has been a long-standing lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in the US. In 2017, for example, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous individuals made up just 34% of new STEM undergraduates, while only 18% went on to finish degrees in such subjects. In terms of gender, women earned 58% of all bachelor’s degrees in US universities in 2018, but only 36% of STEM degrees.

The new study was carried out by a team led by the mathematician Nathaniel Brown from Pennsylvania State University, who examined the records of 109,070 students from six large, publicly funded research universities between 2005 and 2012. The researchers found that a white male student receiving grades of A, B or C in all introductory courses had a 48% chance of going on to earn a STEM degree. For a Black male student, however, the probability was 31% and for a Black female student it was only 28%.

A ‘devastating’ effect

The research also revealed that a third of white male students who earned a grade D or failed a single introductory course still went on to obtain a STEM degree. However, only 16% of Black men and 15% of Black women in that position graduated in a STEM subject. That single poor grade, Brown notes, “has a devastating effect on minoritized students”.

Brown told Physics World that the study shows that the disparities do not just arise from poor preparation for the exams. “That is no surprise to everybody in education,” he says. “But scientists are not familiar with it and find it shocking and surprising.”

Brown adds it is now time to “acknowledge the elephant in the room” at higher education levels. “[STEM faculty] like me have very little exposure to education research. We teach the way we were taught [and] that contradicts the education literature,” he says. “Universities should use policies, financial incentives, and other means to train their faculties in how to teach equity.”

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