The below post was originally written for the June 2015 Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy. The first few paragraphs are reproduced here (with permission). Read the full article here.
Dr. Angela Little is a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University. Her current research asks: "How do students develop a sense that they are capable in physics?" She is also exploring multimedia as a tool to bring many cross-disciplinary and within/outside academia voices together around the idea of "feeling capable." This article expands on her invited talk given at the 225th AAS Meeting, January, 2015, in Seattle, WA. 
Transitions are tough on students, especially big transitions like the one between high school and college. Among the many reasons why this transition in particular can be tough, a big one is that students from a wide variety of high school preparations are often thrown together into large introductory STEM courses. In these courses, it’s easy to mistake background for innate ability, and students often compare themselves to their classmates through grades and through their relative speed on homework and exams. These comparisons can heavily influence students’ decision to major in, for example, computer science  and most likely have similar effects on majoring in STEM in general. This tendency to mistake background for ability is likely amplified in courses and majors in physics, math, and computer science, where students face additional U.S. cultural narratives around the need for inherent “genius” ability: either you’re a math person or you’re not . Researchers have also shown that such genius narratives particularly affect African Americans and women from all racial backgrounds due to U.S. stereotypes about these groups , , , .
Instructors can play a critical role in either pushing back on these genius narratives or amplifying them further. When instructors don’t point out to students that they might be coming from different backgrounds than their peers, don’t teach the holistic set of skills important to succeeding in science and college more generally, and don’t support students in learning how to give effective self- and peer-feedback to improve their work, no wonder students frame their struggle as something inherent to failures in their own brains.
I’m one of the co-founders of The Compass Project, an APS-award winning program at the University of California, Berkeley that supports undergraduate physical science majors, particularly from marginalized backgrounds. Compass builds an encouraging community, engages students in physics projects, and has a special focus on being reflective about the learning process. In my curriculum and program design work for Compass, I often felt that I was fighting against students’ experiences in introductory calculus-based physics. Among the experiences with negative impact on students is that courses were often graded on a curve, which served to amplify students’ comparisons with one another on every exam. Previously, as a TA for introductory physics, I even had one student in a section refuse to work with anyone else because he had done well on the first exam and “didn’t want to bring up the curve.”
What would it look like for students to have additional information, beyond comparison with other
introductory physics students, in deciding whether to major in physics and astronomy? How might it influence students’ decisions on a major if they were also engaged in a challenging project of interest to them in which they could acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, be supported to grow and improve, and feel really good about the outcome?
This is just the first few paragraphs of this article. Read the Full Article in the June 2015 Edition of Status.
 Lewis, C. M., Yasuhara, K., & Anderson, R. E. 2011 August, “Deciding to major in computer science: a grounded theory of students’ self-assessment of ability. In Proceedings of the seventh international workshop on Computing education research, pp. 3-10. ACM.
 Leslie, S. J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. 2015, “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines, ”Science, 347, 262
 Nasir, N. I. S., & Shah, N. 2011, “On defense: African American males making sense of racialized narratives in mathematics education,” Journal of African American Males in Education, 2 (1), 24
 Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. 1995, “Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans, ”Journal of personality and social psychology,” 69 (5), 797
 Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. 1999, “Stereotype threat and women’s math performance", Journal of experimental social psychology, 35 (1), 4