Do you feel like you belong here?

As a freshman in an introductory chemistry class sits down for his semester, which could be his first stepping stone to a career in academia, research, or medicine, a thought may swirl through his mind. Head next to valence numbers, molar masses and oxidation states — an anxiety that turns into a guess: “Maybe people like me don’t belong to this class.

This thought is called uncertainty of belonging, a feeling of social insecurity linked to a person’s identity. New research from the University of Utah shows that insecurity of belonging in a STEM course, especially a freshman chemistry class, can affect a student’s midterm scores, which can then have repercussions on the student’s uncertainty of belonging. For students from groups that are under-represented in STEM, there is a risk that such a feedback loop will cause them to decide that science is not for them, deterring potential scientists from even entering a STEM field.

“Students in these first STEM courses face many struggles and challenges, such as learning to adjust their study strategies, which are normal for this period of academic transition from high school to college,” says Gina Frey, chemistry teacher. “The problem is that a student with a high degree of uncertainty of belonging has a less stable sense of belonging and will believe that the difficulties they encounter in these courses are due to their identity rather than a normal part of the transition. academic experience that everyone is faced with in their early days. years in college.

The research is published in the Journal of Chemical Education in a special issue on diversity, equity, inclusion and respect in the research and practice of chemistry education.

Sense of belonging and uncertainty of belonging

The uncertainty of belonging is different from the simple feeling of belonging. A sense of belonging is an individual feeling, says Frey, (that is, “Do I belong here?”), While the uncertainty of belonging is related to the groups in which a person identifies himself.

“The more uncertain a person is about belonging,” says Frey, “the more aware they are of the problems that specific identity groups may have in belonging to a community, and therefore the person may feel that ‘people like me ( that is, a certain identity group) have no place here.

In a study last year at another university, Frey and his colleagues saw how the difference between the feeling of belonging and the uncertainty of belonging played out. The researchers followed the students through General Chemistry 1 and 2 and found that women entered each class with a lower sense of belonging and higher uncertainty of belonging than men, even with the same. academic preparation (as measured by ACT math scores and the pre-assessment test scores). At the end of the semester, women still expressed a higher uncertainty of belonging than men, although their sense of belonging had increased. Both measures of membership, the researchers found, were correlated with exam performance.

But between membership measures and exam scores, what is the cause and what is the effect? Other researchers had previously hypothesized that belonging and academic performance were linked in a feedback loop – higher uncertainty of belonging can lead to lower exam scores, which in turn reinforces the uncertainty of belonging and so on.

In the new Frey study, chemistry graduate student Joshua Edwards and physics and astronomy assistant professor Ramón Barthelemy set out to explore the recursive phenomenon within the confines of a single course: general chemistry 1.

Recursive effects

A total of 725 students participated in the study, which was conducted in the fall semester of 2020 amid blended learning options due to COVID-19 (later on study impact ). With their consent, the researchers compiled student demographics, information on academic preparation, and grades from the course’s three exams (two mid-term and one final). They also assessed membership using a short questionnaire given at the start and end of the semester.

The results showed that membership uncertainty and test performance interacted with each other as assumed. In general, students’ mid-term performance predicted their uncertainty of belonging at the end of the semester. And that uncertainty predicted their score on the final exam.

Frey says she and her colleagues were surprised to see that the benefits of a good mid-point score over membership uncertainty applied differently to men and women. When men scored high on tests (90% or more), their uncertainty of belonging decreased significantly (suggesting greater security in their belonging). But for women, even with the same good scores, the uncertainty of belonging is not lower than the class average.

“This means that, at least for women, there is a limit to what performance gains can improve social belonging,” says Frey. “The ever-higher membership uncertainty we see for women in STEM classes could affect women’s retention and persistence in STEM fields, and improved performance is not the only factor needed to mitigate this gender-based belonging gap in STEM. “

The researchers also found that intersectionality, or belonging to more than one under-represented group, deepens the belonging-academia cycle. For the group of students who were both female and first-generation students, each increase in the standard deviation of membership uncertainty (a statistical term meaning distance from the class average) was accompanied by a decrease of up to 6% in the mid-term average mark.

How to break the cycle

Instructors and students can help break the cycle of membership uncertainty, says Frey.

Instructors can help by implementing collaborative activities to encourage peer interaction. “It is essential that students see that their learning experience and all the challenges that come with it are shared by most of their peers,” says Frey. They can also create a growing mindset and a supportive environment, helping students understand that their abilities can grow with time and practice, and that mistakes are part of the learning process. “This is especially important right after major assessments, such as exams, when students are most likely to make judgments about their own academic ability,” adds Frey.

Instructors can also help by using examples, analogies, and diagrams that are not stereotypical and include different identities. For example, avoiding analogies and references to popular male-dominated media and activities, Frey says, can have a substantial impact on student belonging.

“Instructors should use these teaching practices for all students,” she says, “but also focus on groups that are under-represented in STEM such as women, first-generation students, and people of color. “

Students can do their part by supporting each other, especially in collaborative activities.

“In the qualitative studies that we conduct, we find that students really appreciate the positive and supportive interactions between students during class,” says Frey. “Get to know your colleagues or peers in your classroom, initiate a discussion with them, share your point of view and respect the points of view of your colleagues. You may be surprised to find that many students’ experiences in the course are similar to yours and that you can help each other learn.

Next steps

The researchers conducted the study during the COVID-19 pandemic and mixed learning modalities. With such a high value placed on peer interaction, how did the disruption of traditional face-to-face learning affect the study?

“It’s a good question that we think about a lot,” says Frey. Due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic, the researchers turned to their previous study for comparison. “We can say with certainty that the outcome of differences in sense of belonging and uncertainty of belonging among men and women in STEM courses is robust and widespread,” says Frey. Additionally, researchers are conducting a similar study this fall in an in-person chemistry class, providing another data point for comparison.

“A key difference we’re seeing is that in the online / hybrid learning environment,” she says, “students more often mention the importance of peer interaction.”

The team is also considering an introductory physics course at U to see if the same patterns hold up in other STEM courses.

Since Introductory STEM courses are the foundation of many specializations and careers, helping diverse students feel like they belong enhances diversity in the courses and careers that follow.

“You are not alone in the struggles and challenges you face as a student in your first STEM classes,” Frey said. “Anyone can improve themselves with the right study skills and support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seeking help from your instructor, peers, or other academic resources is what you should do what you learn.

Find the full study here.


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Norma A. Roth