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‘Biology is easy, physics is hard’: student perceptions of the ideal and the typical student across STEM higher education

Wong, B. ORCID:, Chiu, Y.-L. T., Murray, Ó. M., Horsburgh, J. and Copsey-Blake, M. (2023) ‘Biology is easy, physics is hard’: student perceptions of the ideal and the typical student across STEM higher education. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 32 (1). pp. 118-139. ISSN 1747-5066

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1080/09620214.2022.2122532


This paper draws upon in-depth interviews with 89 students from two UK universities to explore how students from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees describe the ideal as well as the typical student in their respective disciplines. We provide a comparative insight into the similarities and differences between disciplinary identities based on student perceptions. More specifically, we consider how undergraduates from biology, engineering, mathematics and physics construct the ideal and the typical student in their degree, highlighting the popular discourses and desirable traits that appear to characterise students in these disciplines. In addition to a masculinised construction of students in engineering, mathematics and physics, we found a social hierarchy within STEM degrees where biology was perceived as the easier STEM subject. We conclude with a discussion of the impact of such hierarchies on student identities in STEM, and potential implications for equality, diversity and inclusion.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > Institute of Education > Improving Equity and Inclusion through Education
ID Code:107148
Publisher:Taylor & Francis


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