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National Science Foundation, Award #2013316


Expanding Help-Seeking in Large Courses
Increasing Sense of Belongingness for Underrepresented Cohorts


Principal Investigator : Perry Samson, University of Michigan
Co-Principal Investigator : Bradley Bergey, Queens College, City University of New York

Belongingness in College-Level STEM Courses


A distorted image of students sitting in seats in a lecture hall

A major concern in large, introductory STEM courses is the absence of interaction and inquiry even when instructors actively encourage student questions (e.g., “Any questions?”, “Who has questions?”). The reality is that many students are uncomfortable posing verbal questions in large lecture settings, which stems, in part, from a lack of confidence or discomfort in disrupting the class, and is particularly problematic for students traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.

One way to confront this issue in instructional contexts consists of making an anonymous backchannel available. Backchannels are “software that allows a secondary, digital conversation to take place during a university lecture” to address the low-level of participation by students anonymously posting questions, voting on questions, and giving the lecturer feedback regarding the pace of the lecture and/or alerting the instructor that they were “lost.” Evidence indicates that the use of a backchannel increases the frequency of questions posed and by a wider range of students participating in classroom interactions. This research explores to what degree the exitance of a backchannel increases students’ sense of belonginess in the course.

How to Participate

Applications are open for participation in this study in the 2022-2023 academic year. Please review the information below and consider participating.

What is Being Investigated?

We are investigating how providing students with an anonymous backchannel through which they can ask questions and receive answers during class influences academic motivation, STEM identity, and STEM persistence. We want to understand whether and how lowering barriers to questioning supports learning and motivation.

Am I a good candidate?

Project sites fall into two categories: 1) Multi-course instances and 2) Single-course instances. At campuses with multiple courses, a “campus coordinator” (CC) must be identified to identify and sign-up at least three courses. The CC will receive an honorarium of $1,250 per semester for their effort. The CC can be a member of the faculty, staff, Post-Doc or Graduate Student. It will be our preference to work with multi-course institutions. Each instructor in a multi-course instance instructors will receive an honorarium of $500 per participation per semester. For single-course instances instructors will also receive an honorarium of $500 per participation per semester.

For Campus Coordinators:

We are looking for campus coordinators who:

  • Are interested in educational research and willing to participate in monthly meetings.
  • Are able to identify at least three courses willing to participate at their institution.
  • Can oversee any IRB permissions that may be necessary at their institution.

For Instructors:

We are looking for instructors who:

  • Are interested in learning about how students’ in-class inquiry relates to motivation and learning.
  • Teach the same entry-level STEM course at least two semesters over a two-year period (Fall 2022-Spring 2024); Instruction must be delivered fully or mostly in an in-person format.
  • Are willing to share videos of their class sessions. The project will use the videos to record the number, and if possible, the content of verbal questions that students ask during class.

What would instructors be asked to do?

  • Teach your entry-level course one semester without using a technology that allows for anonymous questions asking (Control Semester) and at least one semester using a technology that allows for anonymous questions asking.
  • Instructors have at least two technology options for doing so:
    • One option is to use Piazza (free to you if you don’t already have access). Piazza allows non-anonymous and anonymous inquiry with a simple polling option.
    • Another option is to use Echo360 (free to you if you don’t already have access) each semester. Echo360 is an integrated lecturing tool with a suit of features including slide-sharing, video-linked notetaking, participatory tools (e.g., polling/quizzing), and a channel for anonymous question asking (in the control semester this channel would be turned off).
    • We are open to other suggestions as long as the technology 1) allows anonymous inquiry and 2) allows the instructor to download student-specific analytics. Please contact us with suggestions for other platforms.

Interested in Learning More?

Please contact Perry Samson ([email protected]) or Bradley Bergey ([email protected]) to learn more about the project and how we might partner.