By BERT GAMBINI
Published October 31, 2023
How instructors respond to college students’ questions in introductory STEM settings can motivate those students to pursue further research in science, technology, engineering and math courses — and recruit others to join them, according to a study by a UB psychologist.
“When students in our study imagined receiving a positive rather than a negative or neutral response to their question from their STEM instructor, they felt more confident and a sense of belonging in STEM,” says Lora Park, associate professor of psychology, College of Arts and Sciences, and the paper’s first author. “Increased feelings of confidence and belonging, in turn, were related to greater reported intentions to join a STEM lab and to ask others to join as well.”
Park surveyed college students about their experiences in STEM and non-STEM courses. Students reported that instructors were less likely to offer positive responses to questions in STEM courses, such as math, as opposed to non-STEM courses, such as English. They were also less likely to ask questions in STEM courses compared to non-STEM courses.
Participants across five experiments imagined receiving from an instructor a positive, negative or neutral response to a question. The results, published in the journal Self and Identity, suggest that a response such as “That’s a great question, I’m glad you brought that up” may have a meaningful impact on college students trying to decide if pursuing STEM fields is right for them.
“Students’ confidence and belonging, or how much people believe they fit in and are accepted by others in a STEM setting, may influence their interest and motivation in STEM,” says Park.
Not all students, however, are affected equally by positive instructor responses.
“Compared to men, women reported greater confidence, belonging and intentions to join a STEM lab after imagining receiving positive instructor responses,” says Park. “Women also reported lower confidence, belonging and intentions to join a STEM lab after imagining a negative instructor response, or even a neutral response, such as ‘We’re out of time today, so please hold your question till next time.’”
Park says the research serves as a reminder to instructors that even small actions can shape students’ motivation and interest. The findings may also have implications for the workplace.
“Managers should be aware that their feedback to employees may have the potential to shape motivation, work output and retention,” says Park. “This is especially important for fields such as STEM, where students and non-students may doubt their abilities and inclusion.”