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Underrepresented Students in STEM Classes Resulted in Higher Grades

Dr. Nicholas BowmanDr. Nicholas BowmanThe presence of underrepresented racial minority (URM) and first-generation college students in a course is related to higher STEM grades for all students in the class, especially for the minority students themselves, according to a recent study published in AERA Open.

The December-published study, "The Role of Minoritized Student Representation in Promoting Achievement and Equity Within College STEM Courses", examined the effects of having URM and first-gen students in undergraduate STEM classes.

There are existing, notable disparities among those who pursue STEM degrees at four-year colleges and actually earn such degrees, based on the student-in-question’s race and ethnicity, the report pointed out. While more than half of white non-Hispanic (58%) STEM majors end up earning a STEM degree, 43% of Latinx and 34% of Black students do the same. And first-gen students are approximately 40% less likely than continuing-generation students to earn a postsecondary STEM degree.

For this study, the researchers analyzed 87,027 grades of 11,868 STEM-interested students – who started college in Fall 2015-2016 – in 8,468 STEM courses at 20 postsecondary institutions.

Half of the selected students were female; 26% were Asian; 13% Latinx/Hispanic; 6% Black/African American; and 9% multiracial or another race. For the purposes of the study, the researchers designated students who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native, Black/African American, Latinx/Hispanic, Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian, multiracial, or other race/ethnicity as URM.

And a little over a quarter of the students examined were first-generation (27%).

The researchers found positive and significant associations between the proportion of URM students in STEM courses and with STEM grades – the same goes for the presence of first-generation students. Where there was high URM representation, the STEM grades of both white students and URM students were higher. Similarly, where there was high first-generation student representation, the STEM grades of both continuing-generation students and first-gen students were higher.

"One of the things that we found was that having a greater representation of racially minoritized students or first-generation students in classes also benefits everyone,” said study lead author Dr. Nicholas Bowman, a professor of higher education and student affairs at the University of Iowa. “So, it's really important that this is not a zero-sum game, and in fact that increasing representation of students who have not historically been represented benefits everyone."

Additionally, the grade gaps between compared student groups also shrank as the proportion of URM and first-gen students in such classes rose. STEM classes with high URM representation had a 27% smaller grade gap between URM and white students, and those with high first-gen representation had a 56% smaller grade gap.

The findings suggest that the presence of URM and first-gen students has a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect on all students’ grades. But it’s important to note that the grades of these minority students are seeing larger benefits, said senior author Dr. Mary Murphy, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University Bloomington.

"I think the more important finding is that it also lifts some boats more than others to actually enhance equity in these classrooms,” Murphy said. “It has a bigger effect, and it actually reduces equity gaps in STEM grades, much more so for URM and first-generation students than for non-URM and continuing-gen students.

Dr. Mary MurphyDr. Mary Murphy“The big takeaway – for me – and what was surprising was just how much numerical representation matters to students' grades. Narrowing the achievement gap in these STEM classes by 27% ... and 56%, that's a whopping effect size."

To note, the study does come with its fair share of shortcomings or areas where additional research is required. For instance, the 20-school sample was made up of willing four-year institutions, so it is unclear whether the same could be said of two-year schools. Another was whether the presence of URM or first-gen students affected teacher pedagogy and practices.

“It is possible that courses with greater representation of minoritized students may have more lenient grading practices (e.g., grading on a curve) or more effective STEM instructors,” the report noted. “Our analyses attempted to account for these possibilities by controlling for course-level and student-level characteristics or by removing all between-student variation, but these strategies may not have fully succeeded, and they cannot provide direct evidence on whether or how each of these alternative dynamics may account for the results.”

Though the study did not investigate how exactly these positive relationships work and why they exist, the study’s authors posited that diversity can come with beneficial outcomes. There is plenty of literature discussing benefits – including benefits to cognitive and learning outcomes – that “engaging across difference” can have, Bowman said.

"There is a lot of research that has looked at why numerical representation matters for students' sense of belonging and for their grades. Part of it ... is social proof,” Murphy said. “It's how we know diversity begets diversity. When contexts are more diverse, it's a social proof that people like us belong here, they can be successful in this environment, there are people like me who I can be friends with and learn strategies from.

These “situational cues” are meaningful to underrepresented and historically excluded students and groups in higher ed and STEM, Murphy said.

The study's other authors are Dr. Christine Logel from Renison University College; Dr. Jennifer LaCosse from the University of Michigan-Flint; Dr. Elizabeth Canning from Washington State University; and Dr. Katherine Emerson from IU's Equity Accelerator.

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