Why aren’t undergrads more like 8 year olds?


Last week I had the great pleasure of being a guest “science mentor” for a summer science camp. I got to spend about an hour and a half with a group of 7 and 8 year olds and talk to them about science and spiders. It was super fun, and exhausting.

These kids were incredibly enthusiastic about science. Yes, they were at a science camp, so they are probably not a representative sample of all 7 and 8 year olds, but their knowledge and interest in science far surpassed my expectations. The first thing I wanted to discuss was who scientists are and what scientists do. I had barely started talking before several kids practically started levitating out of their seats, their hands were raised so high, because they just couldn’t wait to tell me that scientists study various subjects, do experiments, ask and answer questions, and test hypotheses. When someone then asked, “what’s a hypothesis?” and I started to answer, “well, it’s kind of like a guess…” I was immediately corrected by another student, who wanted to clarify that it can’t just be any guess; it must be an educated guess. We talked about how making observations is an important part of science, and that those observations often lead to new hypotheses. These kids really impressed me. They were also (unsurprisingly) incredibly enthusiastic about the activity we did where they got to design spider webs and throw paint-covered “flies” at them to see how effective they were at capturing prey. It was fun.


Science camp! Where learning about spiders involves paint-covered projectiles! Photo: Mary Clinton

I was struck by the classroom dynamics, and how they differed from the university tutorials and labs where the majority of my interactions with students happen. I had a hard time getting through the material I had prepared, because I was constantly being interrupted by the raised hands of students with questions and comments, some on topic, some not so much, but all thoughtful and contributing to a fantastic discussion*. I would guess that a good half of the students raised their hands (some more often than others) during the classroom part of my visit, and then I interacted with almost all of them during the activity or answering individual questions later on.

I have never had such an active classroom discussion with undergraduate students. It’s often like pulling teeth just trying to get them to talk amongst themselves. They would never ask, “what’s a hypothesis?” even if they didn’t know. Why? I think a lot of undergrads are afraid to ask “stupid questions” or not know “the answers”. Is that the main reason undergrads are hesitant to participate? (I’m not sure.) Are elementary school aged kids more comfortable not knowing the “right” answer, and somehow made to feel like asking all kinds of questions is OK? If that’s the difference, why? What happens to make them afraid by the time they reach university? And is there anything we can do about it?

Since writing the above I talked with a couple of folks who both said, “high school is what happens.” I don’t remember being specifically concerned about mean kids making fun of me for being wrong or not knowing the answer in high school (I’m pretty sure it was a terrible time, but I’ve largely forgotten or blanked out most of the experience), but I’m prepared to believe that’s a big part of what’s happening. We also talked about the fact that high school and university evaluation are often about (or at least perceived by students to be about) knowing the right answers. Maybe the rewards of asking questions are not sufficient. Perhaps the costs – judgment or ridicule by peers, or worse (and rarely I hope), teachers – are too great.

Thinking about this reminded me of an interesting piece I read recently on the danger of telling kids they are smart. The idea is that if kids are told they are smart (rather than that they did a great job, or whatever), they become afraid of being not smart. They are afraid of or unwilling to make mistakes (and therefore miss out on learning) because they are worried that messing up means they aren’t smart, or won’t be perceived as smart, anymore. Maybe these kinds of “smart” kids are a big percentage of the students entering university, who are worried about how they compare to their peers and/or not living up to their own expectations about what it means to be smart.

What do you think? And what can we do to get undergrads to start acting more like 8 year olds?


I wish teaching undergrads could be more like teaching these kids! Photo: Mary Clinton

*I did struggle a bit with classroom management. The camp already had rules about listening quietly when others were speaking and raising your hand if you wanted to say something, and I added in my plush tarantula – the “speaking spider” – that meant whoever was holding it had the floor. That worked pretty well, and there were only a couple instances of students just couldn’t resist shouting out or interrupting (although I did ask them all to shout out at certain points). I didn’t want to stop anyone who wanted to contribute from doing so, but there were a couple of boys who raised their hands every couple minutes who I had to start ignoring after a while. It was a struggle to keep moving forward, when there were always more questions, but it went reasonably well. Anyway, if you have suggestions on how to handle and plan for these kinds of situations better, I would love to hear them!

13 thoughts on “Why aren’t undergrads more like 8 year olds?

  1. By coincidence this morning I spent an hour talking about pollinators with a hall full of 60 or so 8 year old girls as part of a “Women Into Science” initiative. Agreed, they are very enthusiastic and keen to ask questions! One impressed me by recognizing Charles Darwin – something which some of our undergrads have failed to do….

  2. Catherine, what you did was to discover parataxonomists; they don’t have to be 8 years old. Same thing happens with people in the 14-35 year age bracket if you offer what you offer (only that the older ones sometimes are more rigid in what they think they “know”). Please send me a note at djanzen@sas.upenn.edu so that I have your email, and will send some stuff.
    Terry, the defect in your web site is that there is no button to get Catherine’s email directly, instead of this indirect way/loop.
    Smile. Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs

  3. I loved this article, and have had very similar thoughts in the past. Maybe some of it is to blame on highschool, but I feel most of it is about how our university courses are set up. Teaching a first year biology course, for example, is all about throwing out information, and then using exams and tests to see how much sticks. I find it very discouraging to TA a course like this because the focus of the class is ‘do we need to memorize this for the exam?’, rather than genuine interest in learning. And I don’t think the students are entirely to blame for that mentality. Bring those same university students to a place like Bamfield Marine Sciences Center and teach them about plankton or seaweed, and they turn into those wide-eyed 8 year olds.

  4. I was an annoying 8 year old for all of my schooling, including undergrad and currently in grad school. My brain moves fast, so if in a discussion I don’t understand something and want clarification, I ask as quickly as I possibly can. I also don’t care what others think of me so if my question is “dumb”, it doesn’t bother me. (I also went to office hours, sent in emails, etc.)

    HOWEVER, I’m a huge extrovert and not afraid to speak my mind/voice my opinion, yet many of my friends throughout my life have been very introverted. Typically, from what they’ve told me, it’s just as intimidating to be in a classroom setting where you could fail if you say the wrong thing as it is to be in a room with one or two people like myself.

    I’ve been a TA and tutor for my entire collegiate career and honestly I just think students don’t care anymore. Most go to college because “it’s the thing you do after high school”, which is most certainly the WRONG reason to go to college. The majority of my students feel that they should be able to coast through college because that’s what they did in high school, even when you are completely upfront with the expectations for a good student, workload and class. The last class I was a TA for had a ton of field work and the majority of my 30 students complained every single time we met for class.:/

  5. I am fortunate to teach field courses (and a physiology course with a diversity of live animals used in the lab) to undergraduates and I find that in the lab or field undergraduates do let go and ask questions and show curiosity. I think it has something to do with being “outside” their comfort zone and having adventures…..knee deep in swamps, bush-wacking through forests or handling live animals (that might escape, poop, or bite). When it comes to tests or assignments they revert to the insecurity of wanting to “get it right” by getting the solution to their problems from you. Unfortunately, for biology students, they think a lot rides on their grades rather that the quality of hands on (and brains on) experiences they have. I blame high schools and our “standard testing” culture. It is what got them to college so it must work!

  6. I’ve certainly been on both sides of the classroom in this respect. As a student (a graduate student, nonetheless) I struggle with being vulnerable enough to admit when I don’t understand a concept or try to answer a question I might get wrong in front of my peers. With the pressure our undergrads face in getting good grades in order to get into med/dent/grad school, I think they often feel at odds with the other students and are in competition for high marks.

    I TA a senior level ecology lab which spends a lot of time in the field. Like Andrea above, I think getting students out of the all-too-familiar environment of the stuffy classroom/lab really helps students open up. The academic playing field feels much more level when you can look around and see your peers struggling just as much as you to stay standing in the mud. To me, it’s a visible: “We’re all in this together”.

    I could teach every lab knee-deep in a Louisiana swamp, I would!

    The question is, how can we bring that atmosphere of working in the field into labs and lectures so students feel ok about being vulnerable and asking questions?

  7. Also, if anyone would ever like to get in touch with me via email, I have added it to my about page!

  8. Hmm. Maybe I’m projecting from my own experiences, but maybe it’s something to do with circumstances and stakes and vulnerability.

    When you’re a little kid at a science camp, 1) you’re probably at camp voluntarily, and 2) there are no stakes. Your performance doesn’t affect your future ability to make a living. You aren’t being graded on your performance, for that matter. Your parents won’t cut off your tuition money if you step too far out of line. You’re not stuck in a required class that you actually have no interest in. In other words, it’s a pure fun-times activity, and the little kids are treating it as such.

    When you’re an undergrad, well, theoretically you are at college “voluntarily,” but in reality, you’re not, because you need a degree to get most jobs that would provide reasonable financial security, and because if you’re from a middle-class background (or a “striver” background, as exists in many immigrant or upwardly-mobile families) your family expects you to get a degree. Even if you are ALSO there because you want to be, there’s that mandatory component. You may be stuck in a required class that you don’t care about. You may, because of family expectations or pressures around future financial security, be stuck in a MAJOR you don’t care about. You’re being graded on your performance, and your performance affects your future ability to make a living, and possibly your relationships with your family. Even if all of those things don’t apply to you, some probably do, and that means you’re in an environment that at the very least is a mix of cool stuff and stress, rather than a fun-times environment. That can discourage putting yourself in a vulnerable position, and it can also discourage your natural interest in subjects – even the coolest topic becomes less fun and inspiring to study if you’re worried about all your upcoming midterms and how if you don’t pass all of them then when you go home for Spring Break the whole week is just going to be about how disappointing you are. It makes the work into drudgery.

    I don’t know how you solve this. It’s not like you can make the college experience back into the summer camp one – schools aren’t going to do away with grades or substantial required workloads or required classes. The economy isn’t going to change itself so that nobody needs college to make a middle-class living and all majors have an equally easy time finding good jobs after graduation.

  9. Lirael, I think you’re right that the “high stakes” environment of university is a factor here. And I get that not every undergrad is going to be excited about all their required courses – and that’s OK. But I think we should be able to create classroom environments where there is a chance to make mistakes and be curious. And I’d like to think that university should be and can be about learning and getting excited about cool stuff (even if it’s inherently stressful too), not just endless drudgery in pursuit of a piece of paper that will help you to get a job.

  10. The enthusiasm of school kids at the outreach events we’ve done is so amazing. It’s totally exhausting, as you said, but so much fun!

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