No Professor, It Isn’t Obvious.

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How reductive language limits students’ learning in STEM classrooms at Columbia.

By: Maria MacArdle

“But obviously, the rest is self-explanatory.” Your professor puts down the chalk, turns to their notes, and prepares to move to the next topic.

Your stomach drops. You look down at the unfinished derivation in your notes and at the QED scribbled on the blackboard. Does everyone else know what is happening here? Did you miss a step? Is this based on something from last class? You’re confused, frustrated with yourself for being confused, and mostly wondering why nothing about this seems obvious at all.

That’s because it’s not. Realistically what you are learning in any given STEM class is the culmination of the life’s work of many scientists. It wasn’t obvious to Faraday that electricity and magnetism were linked, let alone the complex math that accompanied his theories. So why would his years of work, or the work of any other prominent scientist, appear obvious to anyone else?

The language we use in STEM classrooms can have a distinct effect on the way material is learned. Beyond the clarity of the lecture, the tone an instructor takes when introducing difficult topics is something we don’t often think of, but it can have a distinct effect on students’ confidence and in turn, their ability to learn.

Barnard’s own president, Dr. Sian Leah Beilock, has done extensive research on how math anxiety affects a student’s ability to learn the subject. Math anxiety is a perceived predisposition that you are inherently inferior in a subject, which has a clear and destructive effect on your ability to learn it. One way this dangerous correlation is harbored in Columbia’s classes is in the reductive language used to discuss challenging topics. Words and phrases such as “obviously”; “clearly”; “easy”; “self-explanatory”; and other diminishing terms we use without thinking can have a real effect on learning.

When a professor describes a topic as “easy” or “straightforward,” we can often assume that everyone else in the room is at that level, discouraging us from asking questions of both our teachers and fellow classmates. Beyond this, language that makes students feel insecure can result in a pseudo-elitist attitude among students. With this attitude, we pretend to understand what we do not in order to appear on-board with what is expected to be “obvious.” In doing so, we put down those students who expose their confusion openly, or worse, we can use this language to exclude people from STEM fields altogether. More than anything else, students I interviewed were concerned about how it turns people off from studying STEM fields. Many of these students are deeply committed to an education in a hard science; however, this kind of language has made them question their ability to do so, making it even more limiting for those who don’t see themselves as “math people” to hear language that further supports an assumption that if these topics don’t make sense to you automatically, you just don’t have the mind for them.

There is a lot of power in the way we, as students, choose to speak to each other about our classes. With this in mind, we can try to avoid words and phrases that close doors to further discussion. We can make a point to indicate to ourselves and others when something is difficult, and understanding it is a non-trivial accomplishment. We can respect the scientists that came before us and the intellectual leaps they took that are in no way “self-explanatory.”

In this age especially, the last thing we want to do is discourage people from studying the sciences. The stereotype of the lone genius – someone who indeed would find these topics “obvious” – remains a leading idea of how scientific discoveries happen. However, this is in no way the truth. STEM fields have always been a collaborative effort, and any form of exclusivity, be it active or passive, in the language we choose, is counterproductive. While STEM classes do not have a tendency to welcome every identity into the room equally, it is vital to understand that a diversity of perspectives is necessary for great feats of learning to occur. Therefore, it is on us, as students, faculty, and members of an academic institution, to understand and counteract the effects our language can have on the learning of ourselves and others.

Maria is a sophomore studying physics at Barnard College. She is also a staff writer for Columbia Science Review.

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