This study aimed to gain a better understanding of why college students struggle in introductory environmental science (ES) courses and what might be done to adjust teaching practices to promote success and persistence. Over 700 students across eleven introductory ES courses completed a 23-item online survey. Items on the survey included demographic questions and questions relating to student's interest in ES-related topics, amount of prior ES coursework, childhood residence setting (rural, urban, suburban), and frequency of childhood interactions with components of natural environments (forests, soil, plants, etc.). Researchers then linked survey responses to students' final grades in their ES course and looked for possible associations.
Results showed that higher grades were positively linked to (a) growing up in a rural setting, (b) having plans to pursue an ES-related career, (c) interacting with forests prior to entering college, and (d) having an understanding of ecosystem processes. Additionally, over 40% of the students with frequent childhood interactions with nature reported that such interactions helped them in their ES course. Over 50% of the students who reported not interacting with forests at all before college earned a below-average grade in their ES course. Factors not significantly associated with student grades in ES courses included academic rank, gender, prior ES coursework, and the number of ES-related extracurricular activities a student participated in during high school.
Overall findings of this study indicate that students from more urban settings and those with fewer childhood interactions with natural environments under-perform relative to their counterparts in introductory ES courses. Population trends indicate that colleges can expect an increase in the percentage of students from urban backgrounds and with limited interactions with natural environments. These findings call attention to the need for further work in identifying and addressing implications for educational practice.