Why examining precursor non-cognitive variables is critical to improving STEM teaching and learning

Why examining precursor non-cognitive variables is critical to improving STEM teaching and learning

Along with several of my colleagues, I have had the privilege of bringing to the forefront an exciting new study underway on gender equality in STEM education research. In short, the study examines non-cognitive variables of undergraduate freshman students majoring in STEM. While that’s not as attention grabbing or headline making as Katherine Johnson using her mathematical genius to safely bring a NASA astronaut safely back to earth, the study’s preliminary findings may be just what every educator needs to identify students like Katherine sitting in their classrooms.

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

Now, while it may seem like there couldn’t possibly be a connection between impact and baking, let’s, in fact, take a look at the practices of an expert baker to discuss impact. A baker’s ability to rise above is a direct result of the impact of one proven step in the baking process, sifting. To be sure, I don’t have to be a baker to taste the difference between a recreational and an expertly baked cake. But, if I were an amateur baker, striving to rise to the next level, I would need to know what the expert did that made the difference. One thing expert bakers know is that when baking a cake, sifting dry products like flour and baking soda improves uniform mixing and results in high quality cake baking. Unfortunately, it’s a step amateur bakers often skip. Their practice is “caked” in the results.

Teaching and learning experts are no different. They understand that the “sift” in learning is done through the examination of pre-existing non-cognitive variables in students. In addition, this examination must be done prior to introducing certain curricula concepts onto cognitive schema that might hold misconceptions about these concepts introduced or one’s ability to master such concepts. The extra step of determining pre-existing non-cognitive variables results in the educator achieving her prime objective of helping students rise. Her objective to increase students’ content knowledge is based on her ability to determine non-cognitive variables. Unfortunately, it’s a step that inexperienced educators and researchers often skip or aren’t even aware needs to be taken. As such, their results are “caked’ into the story they tell about others.

As we readied our presentation, the significance of our findings and the impact they would have on the STEM educator’s ability to recognize Katherine Johnson after Katherine Johnson became even more exciting. We realized that presenting a strongly supported why and a clearly defined how to appropriately measure some non-cognitive variables could move the needle for inexperienced educators and ultimately for their students.

So, what exactly is this study and why is it important? Let’s start with the what. Our research team presented results of peer tutoring support sessions on students’ mathematics self-efficacy and mathematics anxiety. We used the Mathematics Self-Efficacy and Anxiety Questionnaire (MSEAQ) to measure self-efficacy and anxiety. This instrument measures specific factors: general mathematics self-efficacy, grade anxiety, in-class assignments, and future. The in-class assignment factor focuses on the anxiety that students have about asking questions during math class. The future factor focuses on students’ perceptions that they will be able to perform in the future like a mathematician. General mathematics efficacy is about students’ confidence to do well in mathematics and grade anxiety is just that—anxiety about a grade in a course. In this case, a mathematics course.

Students responded on a Likert scale survey with responses ranging from 1 to 5 (1 =never; 2= seldom; 3=sometimes; 4=often; and 5=usually). Students’ average score on the post survey was lower after the peer led tutoring sessions than the average score before the peer tutoring sessions. Anxiety, as one non-cognitive variable, moved in the right direction (down). Mathematics self-efficacy increased slightly after the peer led tutoring sessions.  An analysis of pre-post responses revealed that women and men were ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ anxious about math and ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ were confident about their mathematics performance.

Researchers explored mathematics anxiety and its psychological precursor, stereotype threat. Most mathematics education studies comparing men and women attending primarily white universities show women with higher mathematics anxiety scores than men (Beilock, 2008). Stereotype threats induce anxiety and undermine mathematics performance, particularly for women (Eschenbach et al., 2014 Steele, 2010). Research describes positive impacts of HBCUs on retaining and graduating large numbers of African-American STEM majors (Owens et al., 2012). As such, the working hypothesis now is that stereotype threat is lower for African American students within the HBCU context.

Much like the high-quality outcome of the expert baker that reflects a deeper knowledge about baking ingredients and the processes of baking, this 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 become experts in their delivery. With that change comes a decrease in students’ anxiety and increases in commitment to mastering mathematics content. Gone are the days of not raising their hands during math class. The resulting increase in mathematics self-efficacy alone will be massive. The decrease in grade, test, and class anxiety will be significant. The impact of this step on educators and students alike, proven for decades at HBCUs, cannot be overstated.

No longer should students be anxious while in science or mathematics courses. The right ingredients, the proper environment, and appropriate backing 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. #changethenarrative

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