Weighing in on STEM


A British study proposes a quick fix to boost the dwindlingnumber of students opting to study science and math.

Olivia LaBarreYOUR CHEMISTRY DEGREE should count for more than my English degree.At least that's what the authors of a recent report titled "Relative Difficulty ofExaminations in Different Subjects" seem to want us to believe.

The report, released June 30 by the Curriculum, Evaluation, and Management Centre at England's Durham University, examines 2006 test results from nearly 1 million British high school students and reviews 28 studies of cross-subject comparison conducted in the UK since 1970. After reviewing the data, the researchers concluded that science, technology, engineering, and math are more difficult than language, arts, and humanities. They go on to suggest that students may be avoiding STEM subjects in favor of "easier" courses in order to have a better shot at achieving high grades-- exactly the sort of scenario that has been troubling the people at Science Community Representing Education and The Royal Society who commissioned the report.

"The worry is that some good students are putting off taking math and science A-levels [advanced-level courses and exams] because it's harder to get a good grade in them," said Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at The Royal Society, in response to the study's findings. He also voiced concerns identical to those expressed by US educators who are alarmed at what our own students' STEM troubles will mean to our competitive edge in the years ahead. "Anything that discourages students from taking these subjects, which are so important for the future prosperity of the UK, is really bad news."

What, then, can be done to encourage students to take STEM classes?

Weigh grades in those courses to count for more, suggests the report, so that "there would no longer be any overall incentive... to favor one subject over another on grounds of anticipated grade."

That solution seems overly simple. Considering the intrinsic differences between subjects such as writing and math, coming up with a statistically based determination of "difficulty" that is believable isn't a realistic task. Too many factors can't be quantified, and there are too many slants on the word difficult. Did the report's authors account for the student who thinks a course is difficult because he finds the material boring? That's a far cry from the student who considers that same course difficult because he must work hard to achieve a high grade.

If lack of interest is the source of a student's poor performance, as is often the case, then the way to influence STEM participation isn't to make those classes count for more but to make them more interesting through creative instruction. Across all studies, student engagement is a reliable indicator of student performance. That will continue to be true no matter how much an A is worth.

-Olivia LaBarre, Managing Editor

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.