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Doubts on “Belonging” Affect STEM Student Performance

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A new city, unfamiliar faces, challenging coursework—entering college can be a big transition. That can lead new students to sense that they, or people like them, do not belong. This sentiment rings particularly true for STEM students who are women, queer, first-generation or members of other underrepresented groups.

A 2020 study revealed that uncertainty about their belonging alone can lower the exam scores of STEM students, regardless of their level of academic preparation. And female students tended to feel more uncertain about their belonging than male students when taking introductory STEM courses such as general chemistry.

In follow-up research (J. Chem. Educ., doi: acs.jchemed.1c00405), researchers in the United States found that this phenomenon creates a negative feedback loop—high uncertainty about a student’s belonging leads to bad performance, which, in turn, brings even bigger doubts about their belonging. The study also suggested that women have a harder time escaping this feedback loop, which the authors believe could affect the retention of women in STEM fields.

“Students in these early STEM courses face many struggles and challenges, such as learning to adjust their study strategies, that are normal for this academic transitional period from high school to college,” said Gina Frey, the senior author of the paper, in the press release accompanying the paper. “The concern is that a student with a high belonging uncertainty has a less stable sense of belonging and will believe the struggles they encounter in these courses are due to their identities as opposed to a normal part of the academic transition that everyone faces in their early years at college.”

Negative feedback loop

For this study, researchers at the University of Utah, USA, surveyed about 725 students taking General Chemistry 1. The team asked questions about the students’ sense of belonging (“Do I belong in this course?”), as well as belonging uncertainty (“Do people like me belong in this course?”) at the beginning and the end of the semester. The survey results were then analyzed against the students’ scores in two midterm exams and one final exam.

The researchers found that low scores on their midterms heightened students’ belonging uncertainty—the notion that people like them do not belong in the course. And this correlated with poor performance in the final exam, even when differences in test preparation were accounted for—a clear suggestion of a negative feedback loop.

What surprised the study authors, the press release noted, was the presence of a gender difference in the benefits of good midterm scores. When male students received a 90% mark or higher in midterms, their belonging uncertainty decreased significantly. However, when female students did just as well, their uncertainty about their belonging didn’t improve as much, staying below average. “This means that, at least for women, there is a limit to how much performance gains can improve social belonging,” Frey said.

Three potential solutions

The study authors suggest three solutions based on previous research. First, instructors should implement active-learning strategies that encourage peer interactions. By fostering a community, the researchers maintain, this strategy is particularly effective in helping students who are uncertain about their belonging. It also improves students’ motivation as well as their performance.

The second suggestion is to communicate a “growth mindset” with students. Reassuring the students that they will improve over the course of time rather than conveying that intelligence is fixed can help mitigate students’ worry about their belonging.

Finally, the authors argue, instructors should use diverse, non-stereotypical examples. For instance, instead of using gendered sports metaphors or showing only white men as examples, instructors should use more neutral analogies and display diverse characters.

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