For first-gen STEM students, a few study tips can make all the difference, author says

When chemistry lecturer Gail Horowitz observed that her first-generation students at City University of New York Brooklyn College were studying as much as their peers but earning lower grades, she decided to take a closer look. The culprit? Ineffective study skills.

Horowitz’s research revealed the crucial role STEM instructors play in teaching first-generation students—who make up almost half of the student body at Brooklyn College—how to study and when to seek help. She shares those takeaways in a book of best practices called Teaching STEM to First Generation College Students: A Guidebook for Faculty & Future Faculty, which was recently featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Teaching students where to seek help and how to manage their time

Some study mistakes, Horowitz says, are common across all undergraduate students. For example, many spend the bulk of their time re-reading and memorizing texts instead of synthesizing information, quizzing themselves, or efficiently working through problem sets.

First-generation students, however, are less likely than their peers to seek out help when they’re struggling. Some experience imposter syndrome, the feeling that they don’t belong in college, which discourages them from seeking help. Others may not know to make use of office hours and tutoring resources.

“The initial research I did showed that students who sought help are successful,” Horowitz told The Chronicle. Thus her new book calls on instructors to embrace their role in teaching study skills. “The most effective person to tell students how to study for a particular course is the instructor,” says Horowitz, who now teaches at Bard High School Early College Newark. Incorporating those tips “could be revolutionary for first-generation college students,” she says.

According to Horowitz, instructors should document study strategies in the course syllabus and review them in class. These should include granular details, such as how much time to spend on problem sets, when to move on to a new section, when to use the answer key, how to check work, how to boil down takeaways from readings, and how to avoid getting stuck on a difficult test question.

Course materials also should outline where and when students can get tutoring or attend office hours. “This sends the message that this is normal,” she says. “You’re supposed to seek help; this is part of your job.” She also encourages instructors to directly ask struggling students to come and meet with them. “For most of them it’s a big sense of relief that they’re having a conversation with you,” she says. “Most have been suffering in silence for a long time.”

Increasing retention of underrepresented students in STEM

On her book page, Horowitz says these steps can have a major impact on supporting diversity in STEM. “First-generation college students are frequently low-income students and from ethnic groups underrepresented in STEM,” she writes. “With a little effort, you can enhance the retention of underrepresented groups in your discipline, at your institution and play a role in national efforts to enhance diversity in STEM.”


Georgetown’s Regents Science Scholars Program seeks to address the critical shortage of underserved and first-generation college students who successfully complete degrees in the sciences. The program combines in-person instruction and mentoring with online technologies that facilitate student engagement and understanding in fluid ways, especially across holiday breaks and summers. By providing more support, more structure, and more opportunities for these students, the program aims to create an equitable scientific community in which all scientists feel welcomed and valued. Learn more about the Regents Science Scholars Program.

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