Sift and See: Why Examining Precursor Non-Cognitive Variables is Critical to Improving STEM Teaching and Learning

Sift and See: Why Examining Precursor Non-Cognitive Variables is Critical to Improving STEM Teaching and Learning

Back in 2018, at the Gender Summit 15-Europe (GS15) in London, several of my colleagues and I had the privilege of foregrounding an exciting new study on gender equality in STEM education research (Monrose-Mill et al., 2020). In short, the study examines non-cognitive variables of undergraduate freshman students majoring in STEM. While this may not be as headline-making as Katherine Johnson using her mathematical genius to bring a NASA astronaut safely back to earth, the study’s preliminary findings may be just what every educator needs to identify the many Katherine Johnson’s sitting in their classrooms.

The study offers some significant outcomes. However, its true power was realized through the ideological shift that took place as our team prepared to share the impact of these outcomes at the summit. Impact – it’s a small word with broad shoulders. And, in fact, the difference between the amateur and the expert is just that, impact.

To Bake Up Lasting Impact, You Need the Right Ingredients

Now, it may seem like there couldn’t possibly be a connection between impact and baking, but let’s take a look at what it takes to become an expert baker. A baker’s ability to get a cake to rise to its highest level is a direct result of the impact of one proven step in the baking process, sifting.

But, you don’t need to be a baker yourself to taste the difference between a cake baked by a hobbyist and one crafted by an expert. If I were an amateur baker, striving to rise to the next level, I’d want to know the techniques the expert used that made the difference. One thing expert bakers know is that when baking a cake, sifting dry products like flour and baking soda ensures uniform mixing and results in a high-quality finished product. Unfortunately, it’s a step amateur bakers often skip. Too many students’ experiences in science and mathematics classroom are “baked” in the results.

Teaching and learning experts are no different. Their perspectives about some students are baked right in. Some educators and academic leaders understand that the “sift” in learning is done through the examination of pre-existing non-cognitive variables in students and in themselves. These variables are contextual and experiential rather than the “traditional” intelligence measures on which our current educational system is based. Think of them as the building blocks of student achievement and success – in essence, what’s already there at the beginning of a learning experience.

Before they introduce new curriculum concepts, expert educators know it’s important to examine non-cognitive variables. As anybody who has tried to learn something new can attest, our existing mental framework can sometimes get in the way of learning. We may have a preconceived notion of how something works that doesn’t quite match reality, or we may be resistant to change. As teachers, it’s important to take these mental blocks into account and address them head on. This might involve providing students with a more accurate mental model, or actively encouraging them to let go of their old ways of thinking. By taking this extra step, we can help ensure that students not only understand the concepts being taught but can also apply them in the real world.

An educator’s ability to determine non-cognitive variables is in direct correlation with their success in the classroom. Inexperienced educators, and, unfortunately, some experienced ones as well, skip the non-cognitive variable assessment step all too often, leaving them with the same lackluster results an amateur baker would produce. STEM education researchers, until recently, have not investigated non-cognitive variables as they have relegated factors like sense of belonging, anxiety, self-concept, and efficacy to the social ‘soft’ science stack. This is something they aren’t as hardwired to engage in as the ‘hard sciences’. And, once again, the story is “baked’ into the results.

Non-Cognitive Variables in the Recipe to STEM Education Success

As we readied our presentation, the significance of our findings and the impact they would have on the STEM educator’s ability to recognize a little Katherine Johnson sitting in their classroom became even more exciting. We realized that presenting a strongly supported ‘why’ and a clearly defined ‘how’ to appropriately measure non-cognitive variables could move the needle for inexperienced educators, not-too-interested STEM disciplinary researchers and, ultimately, for students.

So, what exactly is this study and why is it important? Read the full research study here to learn more.

How to Shift from Inexperienced Educator to Academic Leader and STEM Education Researcher

Much like the high-quality outcome of the expert baker that reflects a deeper knowledge of baking ingredients and the process of baking, our study supports the rationale for age, gender, and culturally appropriate engagement, feedback, and oral communication with students. With this ideological shift, university faculty can know where to focus teaching improvements. By acknowledging, then implementing, the necessary sifting in the classroom, inexperienced educators and researchers become experts in their delivery. With that change comes a decrease in students’ anxiety and an increase in commitment to mastering mathematics content.

Gone are the days of cricket chirps and unraised hands during mathematics class. The resulting increase in mathematics self-efficacy alone will be massive. We will also find the decrease in testing anxiety will be significant. The impact of this step on educators and students alike, proven for decades at HBCUs, cannot be overstated.

You know, when you think about it, this isn’t rocket science. It’s actually much more difficult than that. But, given the right environment, anyone can understand it. As we took to the stage at the Gender Summit 15-Europe (GS15), that was our hope for the future. No longer should students fear the “dreaded” math class. No longer should they be anxious about STEM-related education.

The right ingredients, the proper environment, and appropriate support will result in more high-quality and confident STEM-educated graduates. And, like Katherine Johnson, they are sure to make a difference in the world.