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BUFFALO – Lora Park, an associate professor of psychology in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, has received a $501,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and implement strategies to improve success for college students in STEM gateway courses, such as introductory calculus.

“This project focuses on the use of instructor feedback as a potentially transformative, relatively low-cost instructional tool to improve the undergraduate STEM experience, especially for underrepresented students,” says Park, principal investigator and director of UB’s Self and Motivation Lab.

Park will work on the three-year project with co-principal investigators Joseph Hundley, an associate professor of mathematics at UB, and Deborah Moore-Russo, a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Oklahoma. Findings from the project will provide insights into how feedback is currently given to students in STEM versus non-STEM courses, and will guide the development of methods to improve students’ educational experiences in STEM courses.

Calculus, in particular, is a gateway course to many STEM disciplines that hundreds of thousands of students enroll in every year. Success in calculus is critical for students who want to pursue careers in STEM fields.

Students who struggle in these courses are at risk of doubting their abilities or belonging in STEM, which may lead them to leave STEM degree programs at higher rates than their peers, according to Park. This trend has far-reaching consequences not only for students’ career prospects, but in limiting diversity and innovations in STEM fields.

“By identifying the types of feedback that are most effective for improving students’ outcomes, this project will produce information that will be useful to psychologists and educators in mathematics and STEM-related fields,” Park explains.

Park says certain types of feedback may be especially impactful in boosting students’ confidence and sense of belonging, which may then shape their study habits, willingness to seek help, and interest in pursuing STEM.

“Over time, how instructors give feedback in their classrooms may affect how students perform and whether or not they persist in math and related fields,” says Park.

Park goes on to explain: “By examining existing norms and practices, and testing the types of feedback that are most beneficial for students, this project could change the mindsets and practices of calculus instructors in ways that benefit their students.”

Park’s team will share their results widely with educators, college administrators, researchers and the public through articles, conference presentations, instructor workshops and online resources that train instructors on how to give feedback to their students using evidence-based practices.

“We view this grant as an opportunity to transform the way instructors think about and give feedback to their students, thereby helping all students on the path toward realizing their professional goals,” says Park.

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