Norms and Consequences of Giving Positive Feedback in College Math Courses

Lora Park
Associate Professor
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Need: Although many students begin college with intentions to major in STEM, their experiences with instructors in introductory calculus courses pose a barrier to their interest and persistence in STEM. The dropout rate from STEM is especially high among women, racial minorities, and first-generation college students. Because advances in mathematics are closely linked to innovations in science, technology, and engineering, the long-term growth of the U.S. economy and STEM workforce depend heavily on investing in mathematics education. To address this need, the current project examines how instructor feedback can be leveraged to boost students’ math self-efficacy, belonging in math, and study habits in introductory calculus courses, with consequences for students’ attitudes/identity/interest in STEM, performance, and persistence in math.

Guiding Question: To obtain a better understanding of how feedback affects students in STEM, we first examined the culture of feedback – the norms, practices, and perceived importance of instructors giving different types of feedback and students receiving feedback – in math versus non-math courses (Study 1a & 1b). We then randomly assigned students in introductory calculus courses to receive positive or objective feedback on math exams, to see whether feedback affects students’ math self-efficacy, belonging in math, intended study habits, final math course grades, and persistence in math (Study 2a).

Outcomes: Studies 1a and 1b surveyed instructors (N=205) and students (N=183) from over 20 U.S., colleges and universities, and Study 2a (N=657) was conducted at two large, public universities in the U.S. – the University at Buffalo and the University of Oklahoma. Compared to instructors in English departments, instructors in math departments perceived a stronger norm to give objective feedback, and less of a norm to give positive, corrective, or wise feedback (i.e., corrective feedback plus assurance that students can meet instructors’ standards). Instructors’ teaching practices mirrored these norms (Study 1a). Students also reported receiving less positive feedback from instructors in math versus English courses (Study 1b). However, students said they would have felt more confident, greater belonging, and more motivated if they had received positive feedback in their math versus English course.

In Study 2a, students reported greater intentions to engage in proactive study habits after
receiving positive (vs. objective) feedback on Exam 1, which predicted more favorable attitudes/interest in STEM and higher final math course grades. After receiving positive feedback on Exam 2, students reported higher math belonging, which predicted more favorable STEM attitudes/interest and higher math-self-efficacy, which predicted higher final math course grades. These latter two pathways were especially strong for racially minoritized students.

Broader Impacts: As society becomes increasingly reliant on STEM, research is needed to identify ways to recruit and retain a diverse pool of individuals to pursue degrees and careers in STEM. By examining norms and practices surrounding feedback in college calculus courses – and the consequences of receiving different types of feedback – this project could alter the way instructors give feedback. Notably, positive feedback may be a low-cost, transformative tool to enhance the educational experience for undergraduate students, especially for those at risk of
dropping out of STEM.


Deborah Moore-Russo, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; Joseph Hundley, University at Buffalo, SUNY, Buffalo, NY; Brian Rickard, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR; Deborah Ward, University at Buffalo, SUNY, and Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI; Valerie Vessels, University at Buffalo, SUNY, Buffalo, NY