Increasing equity in your course: there’s an intervention for that

Title: Changing Social Contexts to Foster Equity in College Science Courses: An Ecological-Belonging Intervention

Authors: Kevin R. Binning, Nancy Kaufmann, Erica M. McGreevy, Omid Fotuhi, Susie Chen, Emily Marshman, Z. Yasemin Kalender, Lisa B. Limeri, Laura Betancur, and Chandralekha Singh

First author’s institution: University of Pittsburgh

Journal: Psychological Science (2020) [Closed access]

As part of anti-racism programs, you might have heard that diversity improves productivity or innovation (if not, read our article about the diversity and innovation paradox).

In practice, this isn’t always the case. Even in diverse groups, stereotypes may “be in the air” which can negate possible benefits. For example, research has shown that women in majority-male engineering groups participated less and were more anxious.

Further, these stereotypes may also affect non-minoritized individuals because working as part of a diverse may causes non-minoritized individuals to experience anxiety and reduce their desire for future interactions.

In science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses, these stereotypes often revolve around who participates in these courses and who does well.

The authors of today’s study wanted to change the narrative around who can do well in STEM courses and instead replace it with a narrative that adversity is normal in college and surmountable. The authors hoped that providing this explanation would make stereotypes unnecessary for understanding why underperformance, which appears to have happened.

To conduct their study, the authors selected an introductory biology course at a large public research institution which, over the three years prior to the study, had shown an ethnic grade gap. A single instructor taught the lecture course of around 300 students and also led the four discussion sections.

For the experiment, the authors randomly chose two sections to be control groups and the other two to receive the intervention, which occurred early in the course.

During the discussion period in which the intervention happened, the instructor began by sharing a message that adversity early in college is quite common and can be overcome with persistence. Afterward, the students did a reflective writing exercise about challenges they’ve faced in the transition to college and how those challenges may improve over time. Next, the students read first-person stories from older “students” who had experienced adversity (e.g. a low grade or a hard time making friends) and how things gradually got better (e.g. forming a study group). These stories were attributed to students of different ethnicities as the intervention focused on closing the ethnic grade gap. Finally, the intervention ended with a structured group discussion about why people often do not realize that so many students struggle with the transition to college and how their lives might be different when they are juniors and seniors.

The control groups on the other hand participated in a series of ice-breaker questions and formed groups based on superficial similarities in their answers (e.g. selecting the same favorite quote from a list). These groups then created a team name, designed a mascot, and presented their mascot to the class.

The authors collected data for four semesters (~1200 students) and also obtained the students’ grades in the course.

As hoped, the ethnic grade gap for the students in the intervention section disappeared while the ethnic grade gap for students in the control sections was similar to previous years (around 0.25 GPA points or around the difference between B and B+). Further, the average grades in the intervention sections were higher than the grades in the control sections, meaning white students also received a grade boost.

The ethnic grade gap also disappeared on exams for the intervention sections and the intervention sections had slightly improved attendance compared to the control groups.

Interesting, the intervention appeared to have facilitated the benefits of diversity. In the intervention sections, higher ethnic diversity was associated with higher grades while that was not the case in the control groups. In addition, groups with higher diversity did not rate themselves as less competent in the intervention sections as was the case in the control groups.

After four semesters, the authors ended the experiment in the biology course because the results were consistent and they couldn’t ethically justify continuing to having a control section.

Given their success in the biology course, the authors turned their attention toward an introductory physics class which had historically shown gender and ethnic grade gaps. For the follow up study, the authors specifically focused on closing the gender gap in grades.

Unlike the biology course, the physics course had more variability in the instructor. The course was taught by multiple instructors who each taught multiple recitation sections. In order to standardize the intervention, a team of white, women graduate students visited the class and led the interventions.

For each instructor’s sections, 2 were chosen as intervention groups and the rest (on average 3) were left as controls, representing around 600 students in total. The intervention was nearly the same as in the biology course.

Just like in the biology course, all students in the intervention sections had higher grades. But the gender and ethnic grade gaps remained. On a positive note though, the gaps shrunk by over half (originally they were around 0.4 GPA points or the difference between B+ and A-). The test score gaps also remained but again, was smaller than in the control sections.

Across both studies, the authors found that their intervention benefits all students in terms of grades, but women and students from non-white ethnic groups benefited more. As a result, grade gaps between men and women and white and non-white students shrunk, and in the case of intervention sections of the biology course, were non-existent.

The authors caution that the intervention does not magically improve equity and how well it generalizes to different environments is unknown. Even the two courses they tested it in showed different levels of success.

In addition, the facilitators were only white women so it is unknown how the success of the intervention may change based on the demographics of the instructor. The intervention is based on changing the climate of the classroom and hence, different instructors or facilitators may create a different climate. Nevertheless, the results seem promising and warrant future study, including of students with intersectional identities.

If you would like to try the intervention in your own course, the facilitator scripts and writing prompts are included in the supplemental material.

Header image from Nappy.

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