Course structure, instructors key to student success  

New research finds that equity gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) introductory courses have more to do with instructors’ approach and course structure than student deficits. Gateway math courses—introductory college-level courses such as Introductory Algebra, Statistics, and Trigonometry—are usually required for entry into a variety of disciplines and have been a barrier to college persistence for underrepresented minority students, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. 

Although research into achievement gaps has typically focused on students’ academic preparation, demographics, or socioeconomic background, a new report from researchers out of the University of California, Davis and San José State University shows that altering the structure of introductory physics courses, rather than reducing the courses’ rigor, can close historic grade gaps among underrepresented groups, according to Inside Higher Ed. The report, published this September in Physical Review Physics Education Research, is part of a growing body of research showing “demographic grade gaps should be attributed to biases embedded in the courses themselves,” its authors say. 

Impact of course structure on student success

In their analyses of two different introductory physics courses at the UC Davis, the researchers found that structural course changes closed historic grade gaps for two different underrepresented groups. One course varied the order of topics introduced, where the instructor spent the first 60% of the semester familiarizing students with main ideas (a “concept-first” model) and the rest of the time applying those concepts to complex calculations. Though the gender grade gap remained, the changes eliminated the grade gap between racial minorities and white students. 

Researchers then looked at a second study from six years before that changed weekly tests to biweekly tests, which gave students time to retake exams and improve their grades. While the grade gap remained for racial minorities, it eliminated the grade deficit for women. Although there was not a one-size-fits-all approach to closing all equity gaps, the researchers concluded that to address grade disparities, educators need to move away from a “student deficit model”(thinking the problem originates with students) to a “course deficit model” (considering that there may be a problem with the course).

“There’s a predominant myth that you need to lower the intellectual level of a course in order to accommodate diversity and inclusion,” Cassandra Paul, a physics education researcher at San José State University and report co-author told Inside Higher Ed. “That’s something that we want to push back on.”

Instructors’ role in college completion

A second study conducted by Education Equity Solutions (EES), an equity-focused higher education research organization, finds that instructors are “the most important factor in determining a student’s successful completion of gateway math,” researchers write, even when taking into account other factors, such as prior academic preparation, the high school a student attended, student demographics, and course attributes. 

Although similar studies have been conducted, the EES study represents one of the largest samples to date, Inside Higher Ed reports. EES’s team looked at 22,827 students in 704 transfer-level math courses taught by 159 California community college math faculty in winter 2020 to spring 2022 across four colleges that work to produce more equitable outcomes among their racially and geographically diverse students. The racial equity gaps in the EES sample reflected those in other studies. Among four colleges EES evaluated, 44% of Black students and 48% of Latine students passed their gateway math courses, compared with 67% of white students and 71% of Asian students.

“The way instructors anticipate and address power dynamics, the way they provide messages of support to students and encourage help-seeking, the way they communicate that everyone, regardless of background, can succeed, all these things matter, especially for Black students, especially for Latin[e] students,” Dr. Mina Dadgar, founder and executive director of EES and lead author of the study, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Through a faculty survey and a review of syllabi, EES researchers also found a positive association between specific instructional practices and reductions in racial disparities in gateway math course outcomes, such as offering students feedback on how to improve or providing opportunities for them to practice before exams and projects; offering equitable accommodations when they face challenges; encouraging them to seek help and providing supportive messaging; fostering belonging by creating ways for students to collaborate and connect with each other; and establishing guidelines for students to engage in group projects in ways that value diverse backgrounds. Preparing instructors for this work means investing in faculty development to help build these skills. 

“We had a hunch that instructor effects were really large and that faculty really made a difference,” Mina Dadgar, a lead author on the report and founder of EES, told Inside Higher Ed. “But these effects are larger than we expected.”

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