The Role of In-Class Inquiry in Shaping Student Identity and Outcomes in Entry-Level STEM Courses

Bradley BErgey
Assistant Professor
Queens College, City University of New York


Title: The Role of In-Class Inquiry in Shaping Student Identity and Outcomes in Entry-Level STEM Courses


Authors: Bradley W. Bergey, Perry Samson, and Stuart Karabenick


Submission type: Poster


Topic alignment

  • Design and Study of Innovative Tools, Resources, Models, or Learning Environments for Undergraduate STEM Education
  • Evidence-Based Strategies for Improving STEM Teaching and/or DEI


Abstract (473 words, excluding title)


            Need. The reasons for attrition of undergraduate students underrepresented in STEM disciplines are thought to be influenced, at least in part, by the intimidating learning environments created by large entry-level courses. Of major concern is the absence of student interaction and inquiry in such classes even when instructors actively encourage student questions (e.g., “Any questions?”, “Who has questions?”). Many students are uncomfortable posing verbal questions in large lecture settings, which stems, in part, from a lack of confidence, fear of looking foolish, or discomfort in disrupting the class, and is particularly problematic for students traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. A relatively new way to confront this instructional challenge is backchannels, which are software that facilitate a secondary conversation during university lectures. Backchannels have potential to support student motivation, engagement, STEM identity, and STEM persistence by facilitating anonymous questioning.


            Guiding Questions. Our project is guided by a range of research questions, including: (1) Will adding an anonymous backchannel during class time result in greater rates of student questioning, and other forms of classroom engagement than will occur in classes without backchannels? (2) Will students in classes with a backchannel experience a higher level of belonging, autonomy, efficacy, interest, and utility than will students in classes without backchannels? (3) Do such increases result in increased STEM identity and planned persistence? (4) Do student characteristics (e.g., GPA, gender, and ethnicity) and course characteristics (e.g., grading standards and practices) moderate differences between backchannel and control classes?


Outcomes. Our project involves participation with the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) organization. We are currently collecting data at three SEISMIC institutions, with plans to expand to additional SEISMIC and non-SEISMIC institutions next year. Initially data collection and analysis has established reliability and validity of student surveys and observational protocols. Multisite data will be used to conduct planned analyses examining how presence of a backchannel affects STEM identity and persistence via effects on self-efficacy, values, engagement, belonging, and autonomy (Figure 1). In addition, analyses examine how students and classroom characteristics moderate effects on STEM identity (Figure 2).

            Broader Impact. The attrition of female students, students of color, and students from low-income and working-class backgrounds from STEM disciplines remains a national education priority. Our project aims to improve foundational STEM courses through development of equitable and inclusive STEM teaching practices. Evidence of significant backchannel impact on STEM identity and persistence is expected to lead to new norms for design of entry-level courses and increase student participation. Furthermore, it is expected that increasing options for participation and communication in entry-level courses will offer students underrepresented in STEM disciplines new opportunities to engage in inquiry about course material and with other students in a more “comfortable” learning environment, which may also have an effect on student performance.



Perry Samson, University of Michigan