Failure to Launch: Why a Clever Idea to Make STEM Relatable Never Took Off

Cliff Rouder, Assistant Director, CAT

Nota Bene: This is a true classroom experience I had during my undergraduate student days.  Please fasten your seatbelts as we prepare for take-off.  


Picture it: a 900-seat auditorium at a major research university. My first day of introductory physics. My friends and I entered the massive lecture hall and settled in. Suddenly, we heard (and felt) a very loud rumbling noise coming from stage left. In a flash, we caught a glimpse of a man seated on what looked like a rocket-shaped go-cart racing across the stage. Applause, and then a collective sigh of relief. Surely this was not the “weed out” course we were warned about. Surely this was a professor who had thought about how to make this course meaningful and motivating. Surely we were going to get lots of practice and support. Well, turns out we were surely wrong.  


Things went from awesome to “uh oh” faster than that rocket. After our instructor disembarked, he put 900 copies of a one-page syllabus on a table and told us we could pick it up at the end of the class if we thought we could pass the course after that first lecture. He then walked over to three massive blackboards and furiously wrote equations nonstop for the next 50 minutes. We, too, were furiously copying (and mis-copying) what he was writing, while not understanding a thing. We had no clue how the homework problems related to what he wrote on those blackboards, and he never helped us connect them. If you’re still wondering what the rocket entrance had to do with the course, he never told us, at least not before my friends and I got our first exams back and made the unilateral decision to drop the course. The experience was enough to cause some of my friends to switch majors. “Houston, we have a problem.”


Although there are multiple factors involved in a student’s decision to drop a STEM major, the good news is that what we do in our classrooms has the potential to positively impact retention directly, or on potential mediators of retention like reduced failure rate, improved exam scores, and self-efficacy. We now know a lot more about how learning works in the brain and the teaching strategies that can promote deep and lasting learning (you know, the kind that’s more than just memorizing information the night before an exam and forgetting it the day after). And the best news of all is that incorporating some of these strategies into your courses is pretty doable.


Let’s Exchange EDvice!

How could “Professor Rocket” have...

  • used his rocket entrance as a “hook” to find out, relative to his course content, what students already knew; what misconceptions they had brought with them; and what interests and prior experiences they had?  Why would doing this be valuable?  What are some less grandiose “hooks” you might use in your courses?

  • challenged his students in a more supportive way?  What might he have said, or what might he have written in his syllabus to create an environment where students felt included and supported while being challenged?  What might you do in your courses to create this environment?

  • engaged us in the learning process even though we were in an auditorium?  Why is this important to do?  What in-class opportunities do you give your students to work with course concepts and content?


Operators are standing by, so let’s hear from you! After all, who wouldn’t want to “rocket” a course to greatness?!

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