Chemistry topics posing incommensurate difficulty to students with low math aptitude scores
The identification of students at risk for academic failure in undergraduate chemistry courses has been heavily addressed in the literature. Arguably one of the strongest and most well-supported predictors of undergraduate success in chemistry is the mathematics portion of the SAT (SAT-M), a college-entrance, standardized test administered by the College Board. While students scoring in the bottom quartile of the SAT-M (herein referred to as at-risk) perform significantly worse on first-semester chemistry assessments, little is known of the topics on which these students differentially struggle. The purpose of this study is to provide insight as to which first-semester chemistry topics present an incommensurate challenge to at-risk students. Students were identified as either at-risk or not at-risk via SAT-M scores. Students’ assessment responses were collected across four semesters of first-semester chemistry courses at a large, public university (N = 5636). At-risk students struggled consistently across all topics but disproportionately with mole concept and stoichiometry. Analyzing the trend in topics suggests that the struggles of at-risk students are not entirely attributable to topics that rely heavily on algorithms or algebraic math. Moreso, at-risk students found to have performed well on mole concept and stoichiometry went on to perform similarly as their not at-risk peers. The results support an instructional emphasis on these topics with reviewed literature offering promising, practical options to better serve at-risk students and broaden representation in the sciences.