I’m just bad at science

Sarah here-

If I had a dime for every time I heard this sentence…well, let’s just say I’d probably be free of student loans by this point! I teach hundreds of introductory geology and the large majority (95% or so) are not science majors. So, suffice to say, I teach students with a range in interest and self-assumed ability in science. But after three semesters of teaching full time and nearly 1,000 students, I’m putting a ban on this phrase in my classes and I’ll tell you why.

I want to talk about what it does to your ability to learn when you come into a classroom with the idea that you’re bad at something. You come in with a mental block that will stay with you for the duration of the class. If you struggle with the material, you’ll only give yourself a confirmation bias (see? I don’t get this stuff. I must be bad at science/math/French/whatever it is). How are you supposed to learn with that attitude? You can’t! And before you say “it’s easy for you to say-you’re a scientist with a Ph.D. You weren’t bad at science”. This simply isn’t true.

I found this ad in an Astronomy magazine when I was in college. I saved so that I could look at it and remind myself to expand what I can do and not tell myself what I can’t do (this ad was for Shell (JWT London) from the 2000s).
I struggled with learning math and science through middle school, high school, and through college. I’d sit down to study-I’d feel overwhelmed instantly. I’d tell myself “you’re not good at this stuff” so much that no matter how hard I’d study, I’d second guess myself on just about every problem, leading to even worse self esteem (and not surprisingly, worse grades on assignments). By the time I got to classes like Calculus and Physics in college, I had only made this even worse for myself. I told my professors when I went for help “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at chemistry”. Finally, a professor looked at me in my final math class (Calculus II) and said, “Sarah, you know you’re actually quite good at math. You just need to give yourself a little more time to learn it. And you need to be kind to yourself”. That idea stayed with me for a very long time- it freed me to be patient with myself. And to let me love learning without the fear of grades a little bit more. I made my highest grade on a college math exam that semester (a B-!) and you know what-I was (and still am) proud of myself for that exam grade-I even hung it on my apartment fridge for the entire rest of the semester so I could celebrate it every day. Achievement isn’t always measured by A’s!

Many of us (myself included) automatically assume that what we’re good at and what comes easily to us is one in the same. On the flip side, we assume that we’re bad at things we’re not automatically good at, especially in the world of academics. This simply isn’t true. To take an easy example, one that you’re familiar with if you’re reading this blog, is learning to read. Learning to read is incredibly complex! It took you months to years just to master your alphabet- learning to recognize each individual letter. Then, it took you even longer to figure out how to string bizarre patterns of these letters together to form words, sentences, and paragraphs. No became good at reading overnight-it’s a skill that you worked on for years. And, just like reading, none of us were born to learn science instantly! It takes time to learn how to learn science, just like you learn anything else.

So how can you boost your confidence in science? I’m glad you asked! If you’re taking a high school or college course, ask for help. Visit your professors and ask them to help you! We can explain concepts to you in different ways, help you relate the knowledge to something you’re more familiar with, or just assure you that you’re on the right track. Many times, my students have asked questions that have forced me to learn how to make a concept clearer (so professors actually really appreciate it when you tell us what you’re struggling with). Also, seek out cool articles or blogs or even popular science books in the subject you’re learning about! It can really help to boost your enthusiasm about a concept, which can help your confidence, too.

So give yourself permission to be patient with yourself. Science may not come easily you to-it’s never come easily to me. I worked hard to pass chemistry and even geology classes (looking at you, structure and tectonics!). It’s OK to love something that takes you more time to learn. And it’s also OK to pick a major or to take classes in something that you might need a little more help with. Science is a wide and complex field that takes dedication to master. It can take years to learn how to learn science to the point where you feel confident enough to proclaim, “I’m good at science!”- so why do so many of us automatically label ourselves bad at science? Just like learning to read, learning science isn’t easy! It takes time!

So here’s my warning to my students starting this semester-I’m no longer going to let you say that you’re bad at science in my class (and I don’t want to hear it from people reading this blog, either!). Your science education is a work in progress- and we’re going to work together to help you love science.

3 thoughts on “I’m just bad at science

    • jenebauer February 19, 2019 / 7:25 pm

      Glad this resonated with you, Asa! Sarah has excellent advice that can be widely applicable! Our outlets are always open if you want to contribute in some capacity, even as a ghost writer =]

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