PERbites

Addressing the questions of undergraduate STEM students

Note: PERbites will be producing limited new content over the summer months. We will resume our regular posting schedule in the fall.

Title: What Questions Are on the Minds of STEM Undergraduate Students and How Can They Be Addressed?

Authors: Clara L. Meaders, Michelle K. Smith, Timothy Boester, Anne Bracy, Brian A. Couch, Abby G. Drake, Saima Farooq, Bashir Khoda, Cynthia Kinsland, A. Kelly Lane, Sarah E. Lindahl, William H. Livingston , Ayesha Maliwal Bundy, Amber McCormick, Anya I Morozov, Jennifer L. Newell-Caito , Katharine J. Ruskin, Mark A. Sarvary, Marilyne Stains, Justin R. St. Juliana, Stephanie R. Thomas, Cindy van Es, Erin L. Vinson, Maren N. Vitousek and Mackenzie R. Stetzer

First author’s institution: University of California, San Diego

Journal: Frontiers in Education 6:639338 (2021)


If you are like many people I’ve talked to, this semester has been one of the longest and most tiring semesters and you are excited that it is over or nearly over. One thing that might be on your mind is how to make your teaching next semester a little less tiring and exhausting.

While teaching a course requires significant prep and grading time, administrative work and responding to student’s questions and concerns can become overwhelming.

Today’s article focuses on common concerns of students and evidence-based suggestions on how to address and even how to address them ahead of time.

The Study

For the research component of the paper, the authors surveyed students in 23 introductory STEM courses (pre-pandemic) and asked them to respond to the open-ended prompt “If you were given the opportunity, what questions would you ask your high school teachers and college instructors about how to succeed in your college [course name] course?”

The researchers collected responses during the first week of each course and at the midpoint of the course, receiving 2,112 and 1,504 responses respectively.

The researchers then grouped the questions into larger categories based on the underlying theme or idea of the question. This led to 12 categories of questions, which are shown below.

Figure 1: Percent of students providing a response to the prompt in the given category during the first week (FW) and at the middle of the semester (MS). Figure 1 in paper.

Interestingly, 70% of the questions during the first week fell into one of three categories: studying and/or learning, maximizing out-of-course time, and maximizing in-course time, with studying and/or learning consisting of half of the overall questions.

When the researchers looked at the mid-semester questions, questions around studying and/or learning still made up half of the questions. None of the other categories made up more than 10%.

How to respond to student questions and concerns

After the formation of the categories, 17 introductory STEM instructors who were part of a Faculty Learning Community met to strategize how they would respond to the questions in the most common categories and how they might address concerns early in the course.

Studying and/or Learning

When looking at the specific questions, many of them were about how to study or how to understand concepts.

One of the suggestions from the faculty discussions was to share evidence based practices for learning and studying with the students. For example, suggesting spaced study sessions rather than cramming and using self-testing to check their understanding instead of re-reading and underlining. One faculty even shared that they assigned a short reading about effective learning practices near the start of the semester (Dunlosky et al 2013 if you are interested).

In addition, the faculty recommended sharing self-regulated learning strategies and helping students develop metacognitive skills, or the skills to reflect on their learning. The instructors emphasized giving examples of what these look like too rather than just telling students about the strategies. Even a single lesson about metacognition can affect students’ study skills.

Maximizing Out-of-Class Time

Just like us, students have multiple competing demands and want to make sure they are using their time effectively. One of the biggest concerns was the amount of time they would need to spend on the course a week to be successful. In many cases, the instructors recommended against giving an exact number and instead offered a general range, acknowledging that the number of hours the class would require each week would vary and depend on the student’s background. Yet, even these ranges can be helpful for allowing students to plan study blocks and manage their expectations. In addition to taking classes, students often have jobs, extracurriculars, and sometimes family responsibilities that they must balance.

When talking about out of class time, make sure to emphasize that the time spent studying is only part of what matters. Instead, communicate that it is focused study time that improves class performance. To make sure the study time is focused, encourage students to set goals for their studying and use self-testing to ensure they are learning the material and making progress toward their goal.

Finally, encourage students to seek help before the homework deadline or exam. Remind them that if everyone waits until the deadline, you will not have enough time to help each person.

Maximizing In-Class Time

When asking questions about maximizing in-class time, most student questions centered around note-taking. The faculty recommended first reminding students that note taking is associated with academic achievement so you do recommend they take notes. In terms of how to take notes, you should share general strategies but leave the specifics to the students. For example, you might encourage them to focus on capturing the main idea of each session and the major supporting details instead of trying to transcribe everything said in class.

The faculty also recommended letting students know what materials will be available to them and when they will be available to them. For example, will you be posting your lecture notes and will you do so before or after class. (If you read our post on Universal Design for Learning, you might remember that posting lecture notes ahead of class is a good practice for making class accessible to learners of all backgrounds).

Finally, when it comes to the method of taking notes, you can share that research hasn’t demonstrated a consistent result as to whether taking notes on a computer or by hand is better. Rather the student should pick whatever they are most comfortable with and will not inhibit their learning.

But how do I actually address to those concerns?

When it comes to addressing student concerns, the faculty had a few strategies to do so.

First, they encouraged faculty to use the EPIC model, where the faculty member exposes students to a new learning or study strategy, persuades students it works, has students identify some of the strategies that might work for them, and commit to trying a few of those. Exposing can be as simple as suggesting it and class and persuading could be sharing research articles, data from past students in the course, or even sharing previous student feedback about what worked for them. Research has found that sharing previous student feedback often carries more weight.

Second, offer both anonymous and non-anonymous methods for students to share concerns throughout the course. Students will have questions come up through the semester and you want to have a space so they can ask them. Anonymous options could include feedback forms, in-class clicker-questions, or class discussion forms. Non-anonymous options might be after class or during office hours. Remember that not all students will be familiar with what office hours are or their purpose, so you as the instructor should communicate those.

How do these help you address student questions? As a student you probably heard (and if you are an instructor, you might have even said), if you have a question, some one else likely has the same question. This means that by encouraging students to ask questions, you can address those questions at once rather than student by student.

That leads to the final point of sharing how you will address student questions. The faculty recommended that answers to student questions would be shared with the whole class so that everyone has the same information. You don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) say who asked the question as not all students will be comfortable with that. Additionally, sharing questions may encourage other students to ask questions as they see that other students are asking questions and their instructor is taking time to answer them.

Header Photo by Olya Kobruseva from Pexels. Figures used under CC BY 4.0.

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