Pedagogical Choices

Students’ feelings and emotional responses are important for their persistence and success. A sense of belonging and feelings of competence produce positive affective experiences and can help the formation of a science identity. Instructors can help promote positive affective experiences through successful practice experiences, opportunities for students to observe others, offering support, and using small group work.

Trujillo, G. & Tanner, K. D. (2014). Considering the role of affect in learning: Monitoring students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and science identity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 13, 6-15. This essay provides a brief overview of the role that students’ feelings and emotional responses have in their learning, focusing specifically on students’ belief that they can successfully complete the tasks of a course (self-efficacy), their sense of belonging, and their identification as a scientists. The authors give a concise review of the literature on factors that may support self-efficacy, including mastery experiences, or successful attempts to complete course tasks; social persuasion, or supportive comments from instructors or peers; and vicarious experiences, which derive from observing others. They also provide a review of tools, such as the Motivational Strategies and Learning Questionnaire, that can be used to monitor students’ self-efficacy. The essay also briefly reviews the importance of a sense of belonging for students’ persistence in college and in science, noting its importance for academic motivation, academic achievement, and well-being, and describes tools for measuring sense of belonging among biology students. The authors conclude by turning to science identity, noting that Carlone and Johnson’s model suggests that science identity is supported by recognition as a scientists by peers and instructors; competence; and performance of that competence in a public arena. They also note that interest may be a key factor for students’ development of a science identity. This essay has particular value as an entry point for instructors beginning to consider how their students’ affective experiences can contribute to and limit their learning.

Fostering a sense of belonging

Fostering students’ sense of belonging is a key element of an inclusive classroom. This goal can be achieved in many ways, depending on the particular instructor and set of students in the class. Some approaches to fostering a sense of belonging include the following:

  • Signaling an identity-safe environment can lessen stereotype threat and improve student performance and participation. Identity safety can be signaled by instructors using inclusive language or by highlighting successes of individuals from stereotyped groups.
  • Homework assignments that feature counterstereotypical examples of scientists as a way to introduce course content can increase students’ sense of relating to scientists, shift them away from stereotypes about scientists, and improve course grades.
  • Women students who encounter female experts in math or math-related disciplines through reading or direct interaction tend to exhibit more positive attitudes about math and may have greater identification with math.
  • Interventions designed to help students understand and endorse growth mindset have been shown to improve outcomes for some underserved groups.
  • Interventions designed to help students understand adversity as shared, transient experiences can increase sense of social belonging and academic outcomes for some underserved groups.
  • Interventions designed to support students’ feelings of self-worth and integrity can increase academic outcomes for some underserved students.

McIntyre, R. B., Paulson, R. & Lord, C. (2003). Alleviating women’s mathematics stereotype threat through salience of group achievements. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 39, 83-90. This study examined whether learning of other women’s group or individual successes impacted women students’ mathematics stereotype threat, specifically examining the impact on women’s test performance. In the first experiment, 162 college students (116 female, 46 male) were told that they would help standardize new items for the GRE quantitative section as part of a psychology study. They were told that some research shows that men outperform women in mathematics. Students were also provided with written instructions indicating that additional experiments would be offered for extra credit later. The experimental group instructions indicated that only women could participate in the additional experiments because they are more effective participants; this restriction was eliminated for the control group. Students then took a mathematics test with 34 difficult quantitative items. Women who read instructions that included women’s success in psychology experiments performed significantly better on the math exam, eliminating a marginally significant difference in scores between women and men. The statement had no effect on men’s math scores.  In the second experiment, 106 college students (74 women, 32 men) were told that they would participate in two studies. In the first, they would help develop stimulus materials for future experiments; in the second, they would help standardize items for the quantitative GRE. Again, the stereotype about women’s mathematics ability was invoked. All students critiqued four brief essays that might be used in future studies; in the experimental group, the biographies were about successful women, while in the control group the essays were about successful corporations. After reading the essays, students took the mathematics exam. In the control group, men outperformed women, a difference that was eliminated in the experimental group. Thus, reading about individual women’s achievements in other domains appears to have protected these students from gender-related mathematics stereotype threat.

Davies, P.G., Spencer, S.J. & Steele, C.M. (2005). Clearing the air: Identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 88, 276-287. This set of studies first investigated whether activating female stereotypes reduced the probability that female students would volunteer for leadership roles and, second, whether fostering an identity-safe environment could reduce this effect.  In the first study, 61 undergraduates enrolled in an introductory psychology class were shown television commercials that were neutral or that included female gender stereotypes. After watching the commercials, students were prompted to indicate their level of interest in serving as the “leader” or “problem solver” for an upcoming task.  Women and men shown neutral commercials demonstrated no preference for either the leader or problem-solver role, but women shown the gender-stereotypic commercials expressed a strong preference for the problem-solver role (the gender-stereotypic commercials had no observable effect on the male students). In the second study (n = 116), the authors varied the identity safety of the leadership role by adding a single sentence to the instructions: “There is a great deal of controversy in psychology surrounding the issue of gender-based differences in leadership and problem-solving ability; however, our research has revealed absolutely no gender differences in either ability in this particular task.” They also added a word choice task to measure participants’ stereotype threat. Again, women shown neutral commercials exhibited no significant preference for either role, but those shown gender-stereotypic commercials exhibited a strong preference for the problem-solver role. This effect was eliminated by the identity-safe statement in the instructions. The word choice task confirmed that women shown the gender-stereotypic commercials had a gender stereotype activated, with degree of stereotype activation predicting role choice. The relationship between stereotype activation and leadership aspiration was completely eliminated in the identity-safe condition.

Wayne, N. L., Vermillion, M. & Uijtdehaage, S. (2010). Gender differences in leadership amongst first-year medical students in the small-group setting. Academic Medicine 85, 1276-1281. This study investigated the impact of small changes in classroom instructions on gender bias in classroom leadership positions. The study was performed in the small group discussion sessions of a reproductive physiology class for first-year medical students. In these sessions, students formed groups of four or five to discuss case-based problems, and one student volunteered to be a group leader. In the first year of the study, 67% of the group leaders were men, although they made up only 48% of students in the class (total = 144). In the second year of the study, students were given two different sets of instructions. The control group was given the same instructions about the leadership role as the previous year, while the experimental group instructions were supplemented with two sentences intended to indicate an identity-safe environment: “If you’ve never volunteered to be a group leader in other situations, this is a safe environment to try it out. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your major was as an undergraduate student, whether you’re male or female—being a group leader is an important experience for everyone.” The control group (n = 77) again exhibited overrepresentation of male leaders (73% male group leaders; 44% total males), while the experimental group (n = 81) exhibited no difference in the representation of male and female group leaders (53% male group leaders; 53% total males). Four weeks after the session, students were debriefed about the study and invited to participate in semi-structured interviews (n = 10).  Interviews suggested that the process of choosing a group leader was often not deliberative, but that the altered instructions encouraged students to take different group roles and helped counteract a perceived competitive “male culture” in this environment.

Schinske, J.N., Perkins, H., Snyder, A. & Wyer, M. (2017). Scientist Spotlight homework assignments shift students’ stereotypes of scientists and enhance science identity in a diverse introductory science class. CBE—Life Sciences Education 15, ar47, 1-18. This study evaluated homework assignments termed Scientist Spotlights that present counterstereotypical examples of scientists doing work related to course content in an introductory biology class. The work is based on the premise that featured scientists may serve as “possible science selves” with whom students may identify. The authors hypothesized that the assignments would shift students’ descriptions of scientists away from stereotypes and would enhance students’ sense of relating to scientists, and that these changes would correlate with course grades and students’ interest in science. The Scientist Spotlights introduced course content, highlighted personal characteristics of the scientist, and promoted students metacognitive reflection. Students in seven sections of Human Biology were engaged in the study; five sections (338 students) completed ten Scientist Spotlight assignments and two sections (126 students) completed comparable metacognitive online assignments. On the first and last day of class and six months after completion of the class, students were asked to complete two essays related to scientist stereotypes and their ability to relate to scientists; these essays were analyzed for themes and coded into categories for quantitative analysis. Students were also asked to respond to an online survey measuring science interest at the beginning and end of class. The authors observed the predicted shift away from stereotypes and increase in students’ relating to scientists in the Scientist Spotlight sections, changes that were maintained six months later and that were not observed in the control sections. They also saw a small but significant change in science interest in students who shifted away from stereotypic views of scientists, higher grades for students in the Scientist Spotlight sections, and higher grades for students who shifted away from stereotypic views of scientists.

Stout, J. G., Dasgupta, N., Hunsinger, M. & McManus, M. A. (2011). STEMing the tide: using ingroup experts to inoculate women’s self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100, 255. The authors developed and tested a stereotype inoculation model to assess whether encountering female experts in STEM impacted women students’ identification with and attitudes about STEM disciplines. The authors predicted that encountering same-sex experts would have a positive impact on women students’ implicit self-concepts. In the first experiment, 72 women students majoring in STEM encountered a senior student posing as a math and psychology double major doing work on a senior thesis. When the senior student was female, participants exhibited less negative attitudes toward and identified more with mathematics. In the second experiment, 101 female engineering undergraduates read biographies of female engineers, male engineers, or engineering innovations (control condition). Reading about female engineers eliminated negative attitudes towards mathematics observed when students read about male engineers or engineering innovations, but did not alter identification with mathematics. Further, students’ identification with the female engineers they read about predicted intention to pursue engineering, an effect that was mediated by self-efficacy and implicit identification with STEM. In the third experiment, the attitudes of 91 (42 female, 49 male) STEM-intended undergraduates enrolled in introductory calculus were measured, with the intent of comparing the impact of female and male instructor/TA teams.  Female students who had male instructors exhibited significant negative attitudes toward math and little identification with math; both effects were eliminated in groups with female instructors. Male students did not exhibit significant differences in attitudes or identification in either condition. Further, female students taught by women exhibited greater confidence and self-efficacy in their math ability; again, no effect of instructor gender was observed for male students.

Broda, M., Yun, J. Schneider, B., Yeager, D.S., Walton, GM. & Diemer, M. (2018). Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: A randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness 11, 317-338. The authors investigated the impact of “light touch” psychological interventions on academic outcomes for underrepresented college students using a large, randomized trial. 7,686 first-year students at a large American public university were assigned to an online growth mindset intervention, social belonging intervention, or a comparison group. In brief, social belonging interventions seek to frame adversities as common, shared experiences, increasing students’ resilience when they are trying to fit in to a new situation (see summary for Walton and Cohen, 2011). Growth mindset interventions seek to instill a belief that ability can be grown by exerting effort, seeking help, and changing strategies when facing challenges. Both have been shown to have positive outcomes for college students (see summary for Yeager et al., 2016). This study asked whether these interventions are effective when administered by a different research group in a different context, specifically examining effects on the academic performance of underrepresented subgroups during students’ first two semesters in college. The growth mindset intervention had been developed previously, while the social belonging intervention was adapted using information and quotes from focus groups specific to the study university and was matched to the gender and race/ethnicity of each student.  Latinx students in the growth mindset intervention had significantly higher GPA in both semesters than Latinx students in the control group; the effect was greater for students with lower high school GPA and lower ACT scores. No effect was seen for African-American or white students. The social belonging intervention did not produce significant effects in academic outcomes for any subgroups. The authors discuss the differential effects seen among groups and possible mediating factors.

Walton, G. M. & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science 331, 1447-1451. This study investigated the impact of a social belonging intervention on academic performance and health of African American college students. In this randomized, controlled trial, 92 second-semester college students were randomly assigned to a belonging-treatment condition or a control condition. 49 of these students were African-American, and 43 were European-American. Participants completed daily surveys that measured psychological responses to adversity for one week after the intervention and an end-of-college survey to assess sense of belonging, health, and well-being. In the intervention condition, students read results of a fabricated survey from senior students indicated that these successful students had worried about belonging, framing social adversity in school as shared and short-lived. Participants were asked to write an essay describing how their experiences corresponded to the results and to turn the essay into a speech that was video-recorded to help future students. In the control condition, the survey addressed topics unrelated to belonging. African-American students in the intervention group exhibited a significant increase in GPA over three years, reducing the gap between African-American and European-American students’ GPAs by about 80%. Daily surveys collected the week after the intervention suggested that the intervention buffered African Americans against adversity, increasing their feeling of belonging. Further, African-Americans in the intervention condition reported better health and a greater sense of well-being. No significant effects were observed for European-American students. Interestingly, participants were unaware of the intervention’s effect.

Yaeger, D.S., Walton, G.M., Brady, S.T., Akcinar, E.N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., Kamentz, D., Ritter, G., Duckworth, A.L., Urstein, R., Gomez, E.M., Markus, H.R., Cohen, G.L. & Dweck, C.S. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, E3341–E3348.  This paper reports the results of three studies examining the effects of growth mindset and social belonging interventions for college students. In brief, social belonging interventions seek to frame adversities as common, shared experiences, increasing students’ resilience when they are trying to fit in to a new situation. Growth mindset interventions seek to instill a belief that ability is malleable and not fixed. Students were randomly assigned to one of four groups: social belonging intervention, growth mindset intervention, social belonging and growth mindset intervention, or control. Each group completed an online interaction prior to matriculation. Study 1 examined the effects of the interventions on full-time enrollment status for graduates of high-performing charter school networks (n = 558), finding that the social belonging intervention significantly increased the number of students who were enrolled full-time throughout their first year. Study 2 examined the effects of the interventions for incoming students at a flagship state university (n = 7335), again using full-time enrollment throughout the first year as the primary outcome. Disadvantaged students in the control condition were 10% less likely than advantaged students to maintain full-time enrollment throughout the first year; intervention reduced this inequality by 40%. The different intervention conditions appeared to be equally effective. Study 3 examined the effects of social belonging, cultural fit, and critical feedback interventions on cumulative first year GPA for incoming students at a selective private university (n = 1592) but did not investigate growth mindset intervention. Disadvantaged students in the control condition earned lower GPAs than advantaged students; receiving an intervention significantly increased disadvantaged students’ GPA. No differences were observed for the different interventions, and no effect was observed for advantaged students. Disadvantaged students assigned to an intervention group also reported greater social and academic integration on campus at the end of the first year.

Jordt, H., Eddy, S.L., Brazil, R., Lau, I., Mann, C., Brownell, S.E., King, K. & Freeman, S. (2017). Values affirmation intervention reduces achievement gap between underrepresented minority and white students in introductory biology classes. CBE—Life Sciences Education 16, ar41, 1-10. [Author abstract] Achievement gaps between underrepresented minority (URM) students and their white peers in college science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classrooms are persistent across many white-majority institutions of higher education. Attempts to reduce this phenomenon of underperformance through increasing classroom structure via active learning have been partially successful. In this study, we address the hypothesis that the achievement gap between white and URM students in an undergraduate biology course has a psychological and emotional component arising from stereotype threat. Specifically, we introduced a values affirmation exercise that counters stereotype threat by reinforcing a student’s feelings of integrity and self-worth in three iterations of an intensive active-learning college biology course. On average, this exercise reduced the achievement gap between URM and white students who entered the course with the same incoming grade point average. This result suggests that achievement gaps resulting from the underperformance of URM students could be mitigated by providing students with a learning environment that removes psychological and emotional impediments of performance through short psychosocial interventions.

Promoting engagement and self-efficacy

Fostering students’ sense that the class has value for them and that they can succeed are also key for inclusive teaching.  The mechanisms for achieving these goals can vary, depending on the particular instructor and set of students in the class. Approaches to fostering students’ engagement, value for the class, and self-efficacy include the following:

  • The use of warm language and rewarding terms in a syllabus can increase students’ perception of instructors as approachable and motivated to teach a course.
  • Simple strategies rooted in research on teaching and learning can enhance all students’ opportunities to contribute to and benefit from the intellectual community of the classroom. These include providing time to think and write before asking for students to speak and using informal small groups in class, such as in peer instruction and think-pair-share.
  • Increasing course structure through graded out-of-class assignments and in-class active learning improves outcomes for all students but can have disproportionately large effects for some underserved student groups. Improved performance may derive from increases in self-efficacy, and students also report more study and a greater sense of classroom community.
  • Enhancing cooperation and reducing competition among students can help promote student feelings of success.
  • Knowing and using student names helps students feel valued, increases investment in courses and increases probability that students will ask for help. Name tents are one way to achieve these benefits in high enrollment courses.
  • Emphasizing the relevance of coursework to real life enhances student interest, particularly for underrepresented students and lower-performing students.
  • Supporting students’ sense of autonomy by giving students choice and control can increase their interest and enjoyment in a course and may decrease anxiety measures.
  • Fostering the ability of students to see themselves doing research can improve underrepresented students’ sense of belonging and management of the academic environment.

Tanner, K. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 12, 322-331.  This essay describes teaching strategies that are rooted in research on teaching and learning and that can be used to provide structure in a classroom to support learning for all students, not just those who are well-prepared and motivated to learn. The goal is to create an equitable learning environment by promoting verbal participation, a sense of personal connection, time to think, and a welcoming environment for all students. Tanner organizes the 21 strategies into five groups, each intended to support a goal commonly held by biology instructors: giving students opportunities to think and talk about biology; encouraging, demanding, and actively managing the participation of all students; building an inclusive and fair classroom community for all students; monitoring behavior to cultivate divergent biological thinking; teaching all the students in the classroom. Research supporting each of the goals as important for equitable student learning is reviewed, and an informative, accessible description of each strategy is provided. Strategies include using wait time, providing time to write, using the think-pair-share approach, knowing students names, using small groups, the whip approach, avoiding judgement (including praise), and establishing classroom community norms.

Harackiewicz, J. M. & Hulleman, C. S. (2010). The importance of interest: the role of achievement goals and task values in promoting the development of interest. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4, 42-52. The authors consider how situational interest, or interest that derives from a particular event or experience, develops into sustained interest that promotes ongoing engagement with a subject and results in learning and achievement. They note that other scholars have identified knowledge, positive emotion, and personal value as important for the development of interest, and point out that each of these can promote the others. They discuss relationships among theoretical perspectives on achievement goals, such as students’ desire to master material or to perform well; expectancy-value, or students’ expectations for success and value for tasks; and interest development. Most importantly for instructors, they review experiments that suggest that the utility value of a task—that is, whether students perceive it will be useful to them later—positively correlates with students’ later interest and that this effect is greatest for students who had the lowest expectations of success. Further, they report results of two randomized classroom experiment in which they manipulated task value. 237 students enrolled in introductory psychology and 44 students enrolled in statistics were assigned to write an essay at midterm, either describing how a topic applied to their lives (intervention) or describing what they had learned about it (control). All students completed a survey designed to measure interest at the end of the semester. The intervention increased interest for students with lower mid-semester exam scores, but did not impact interest for students with higher mid-term exam scores.

Hurtado, S., Han, J. C., Sáenz, V. B., Espinosa, L. L., Cabrera, N. L. & Cerna, O. S. (2007). Predicting transition and adjustment to college: Biomedical and behavioral science aspirants’ and minority students’ first year of college. Research in Higher Education 48, 841–887. This study investigates the factors that contribute to the college transition of underrepresented minority students who plan to major in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. The authors drew on data from 5049 students’ responses to the Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) 2004 Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey and the 2005 Your First College Year (YFCY) Survey, dividing the responses into three groups: URM science majors (n = 1851), white/Asian science majors (n = 1366), and URM non-science majors (n = 1832). They found that URM students with concerns about financing college and family responsibilities that interfered with education felt less successful at managing their academic environment and less integrated. Most salient for instructors are findings that URM science students’ perceptions of a hostile racial climate and perceptions of a competitive environment reduced students’ feelings of success, while perceptions of coursework that was relevant to daily life and increased ability to conduct research had a positive impact both on their management of the academic environment and their sense of belonging. These results point to specific steps that instructors can take in their classrooms to make them more inclusive: enhance cooperation and reduce competition among students through pedagogical and grading choices; emphasize relevance of coursework to life outside the classroom; and foster student’s ability to see themselves doing relevant research.

Cooper, K.M., Haney, B., Krieg, A. & Brownell, S.E. (2017). What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education 16, ar8, 1-13.  This study explores the impact of one teaching practice often recommended to increase students’ perceptions of instructor responsiveness and caring: using and learning student names. The authors investigated the use of name tents in an upper-level biology course enrolling 185 students and taught by two instructors. Students were provided materials to create name tents and were reminded to use them throughout the semester. Students were surveyed about their perception that instructors knew their name in previous high-enrollment biology courses at the beginning of the semester and about their perception that instructors knew their name after using name tents at the end of the semester. They were also asked why instructors knowing their names was or was not important to them. In addition, student interviews were used to explore student perceptions that instructors fostered community and relationships with students and cared about student success. 80% of students reported that it was unlikely that instructors knew their names in earlier high-enrollment biology courses, but 78% reported that an instructor in this course knew their names; instructors, however, were only able to name 53% of students enrolled in the course. 85% of students said that it was important for instructors to know their names and identified nine distinct reasons for this importance. The reasons include that it makes students feel more valued (30%); increases student perceptions that an instructor cares (27%) and that it builds instructor-student relationships (23%); increases feelings of investment in the course (19%); and makes students feel more comfortable getting help (19%).

Eddy, S.L. & Hogan, K.A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE—Life Sciences Education 13, 453-468. Increasing course structure through the use of graded preparatory assignments, in-class active learning approaches, and graded review assignments has previously been shown to improve student performance in science classes (see Freeman et al., 2011). This study investigated whether these benefits could be replicated at a different institution and whether there are differential effects for student subgroups, using three semesters in which an introductory biology course was taught with a low-structure approach (little interaction in class; three homework assignments; four exams) and three semesters in which it was taught with a moderate-structure approach (addition of ungraded guided-reading questions, graded preparatory homework, and extra credit in-class activities). The authors used a linear regression model to determine whether moderate course structure was correlated with increased exam performance, controlling for SAT scores, gender, and the term of enrollment. The authors observed that the moderate structure condition improved the exam performance of all students by 3-4%, and that it provided additional benefit for black students (further increase of about 3%) and first-generation students (further increase of about 2.5%).  Course and exam failure rates also decreased for all students. To investigate the factors that may influence student achievement, the authors conducted a survey immediately after the final exam, using proportional log-odds regression models to identify patterns in student responses. They found that all students reported spending more time studying in the moderate structure course, with a particular focus on preparing for class and reported a stronger sense of classroom community and knowing students in the class. Black students reported a higher level of in-class participation in the moderate structure condition, and in both conditions were more likely to perceive the importance of homework, the need for higher-order cognitive skills, and the value of the skills learned than non-black students.

Ballen, C.J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J.B. & Zamudio, K.R. (2017). Enhancing diversity in undergraduate science: Self-efficacy drives performance gains with active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education 16, ar56, 1-6.  This study investigated the mechanisms by which active learning approaches improve student performance in a high enrollment introductory biology course. Two iterations of the course were compared: a control semester in which the course was taught in a traditional lecture format (n = 204) and an experimental semester (n = 217) in which course structure was increased to include prelecture assignments and quizzes and in-class activities. The authors measured student performance in the course via course grades and a pre-post knowledge assessment instrument. They also measured student self-efficacy with a survey administered before and after the course; student sense of classroom social belonging using a post-course survey. Students classified as underrepresented minorities (defined as students reporting themselves as African American, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Native American) exhibited significant gains in performance using both measures when comparing the traditional course to the modified course, while there was no difference observed for non-URM students. All demographic groups reported an increase in self-efficacy in the modified course, and non-URM students also reported an increase in social belonging. The authors conducted mediation analyses to determine whether self-efficacy could predict an increase in performance. They determined that for URM students, increased self-efficacy mediated performance gains.

Hamish, R.J. & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal 14, 319-330. This study examined how the warmth of syllabus tone impacted students’ perceptions of a course and instructor. 172 students enrolled in an introductory psychology course were told that the department was reviewing potential candidates for an adjunct position. To provide input on the decision, students viewed one of two syllabi and completed a questionnaire that assessed instructor approachability and ability to motivate students and course and professor difficulty. Students were also asked to rate the applicability of 18 adjectives that characterized the instructor as warm or cold.  The two syllabi had subtle variations in the warmth and friendliness of the wording of eight sections. For example, the “cold” syllabus read, “I expect you to attend every class. If you cannot attend a class, please let me know,” while the “warm” syllabus read, “You should attend every class but extenuating circumstances arise that can make this difficult. If you cannot attend a class, please let me know.” Students who read the warm syllabus rated the candidate as warmer, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course. They also expected the course to be easier than students who reviewed the cold syllabus.

Hall, N. & Webb, D. (2014). Instructors’ support of student autonomy in an introductory physics course. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research 10, 1-22. [Author abstract] The role of autonomy in the student experience in a large-enrollment undergraduate introductory physics course was studied from a self-determination theory perspective. A correlational study investigated whether certain aspects of the student experience correlated with how autonomy supportive (versus controlling) students perceived their instructors to be. An autonomy-supportive instructor acknowledges students’ perspectives and feelings and provides students with information and opportunities for choice while minimizing external pressures (e.g., incentives or deadlines). It was found that the degree to which students perceived their instructors as autonomy supportive was positively correlated with student interest and enjoyment in learning physics (β = 0.31***) and negatively correlated with student anxiety about taking physics (β = −0.23**). It was also positively correlated with how autonomous (versus controlled) students’ reasons for studying physics became over the duration of the course (i.e., studying physics more because they wanted to versus had to; β = 0.24***). This change in autonomous reasons for studying physics was in turn positively correlated with student performance in the course (β = 0.17*). Additionally, the degree to which students perceived their instructors as autonomy supportive was directly correlated with performance for those students entering the course with relatively autonomous reasons for studying physics (β = 0.25**). In summary, students who perceived their instructors as more autonomy supportive tended to have a more favorable motivational, affective, and performance experience in the course. The findings of the present study are consistent with experimental studies in other contexts that argue for autonomy-supportive instructor behaviors as the cause of a more favorable student experience.

Black, A. E. & Deci, E. L. (2000). The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self‐determination theory perspective. Science Education 84, 740-756. This study investigated the relationship between instructor support of student autonomy and student experiences in an organic chemistry course. The course consisted of full-class lectures led by a professor and workshops consisting of six to eight students led by TAs who had some training in facilitating small group interactions. 137 students in the course completed surveys at both the beginning and the end of the course; the surveys included the General Causality Orientations Scale, which measures individuals’ tendency to respond to a situation in an autonomous, controlled, or impersonal manner; the Learning Climate Questionnaire, which collects student perceptions of instructor support for autonomy; the Learning Self-Regulation Questionnaire; the Perceived Competence Scale; the Interest/Enjoyment measure; the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, which measured anxiety about organic chemistry; and the Grade-Orientation measure. The authors found that students’ perceptions that their workshop leader supported their autonomy correlated with higher perceived competence, higher interest/enjoyment, and lower anxiety. Further, students’ perceptions of instructor support for autonomy correlated with increases in students’ self-regulation of chemistry study and with their course performance.

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Cite this guide: Dewsbury B, Brame CJ. (2019) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Inclusive Teaching. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from
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