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Bootstrapping Achievement and Motivation in STEM: An Integrated Cognitive-Motivational Intervention to Improve Biology Grades

The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A140602 to Temple University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Jennifer Cromley, PI 



Avi Kaplan

Tony Perez

Michael Balsai

Ting Dai

Kyle Mara

In this 4-year undergraduate Biology intervention study, we test a set of “wrap-around” cognitive-and-motivational supports. In Year 1 (Fall, 2014) we developed six interconnected intervention components for first-semester introductory biology. These components were delivered in spring 2015 via Blackboard. They included 1) priming prior knowledge (in the form of brief weekly multimedia videos—discontinued), 2) videotaped lectures (professor-selected PowerPoint lecture segments—discontinued), 3) worked examples (videotapes of short, medium-difficulty problems), 4) relevance writing tasks (self-addressed letters students write on the relevance of the course for their learning, major, career, and life goals), 5) self-efficacy-enhancing feedback (targeted assignment feedback to build self-efficacy), and 6) offsetting perceived course sacrifices or costs (messages addressing students concerns about their perceived costs to completing the course).

This combination of 3 cognitive (#1-3) and 3 motivational (#4-6) interventions is based on prior research and is designed to equip students with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that contribute to increased engagement time, study efficiency, and persistence. These interventions were developed iteratively over Years 1-2, with one new component (cognitive strategy instruction) added in Fall 2015. Full-scale pilot experiments are taking place in Years 3-4. The end product will be 1) a set of course-specific videos and messages, and 2) principles for developing such materials for any gateway STEM course.


Temple University is an ideal research setting for the proposed study as its population represents the future face of the STEM workforce. The university graduates one of the largest numbers of underrepresented minority students in the nation; study participants are expected to be 55% non-White and 42% first generation college students. Participants will be approximately 360 students each spring and 310 each fall in Biology 1111 and 2112 (for STEM majors), N = 2,010 over 3 years. Participants will be assigned to conditions within classes. Sites at UIUC and ODU were added in Spring 2016. Assessments include course exam scores and final grades, and process data and interviews have been collected/analyzed to account for the extent of access to and timing of access to supplementary materials (e.g., the number of times and when worked examples videos were accessed, the type[s] of relevance that students construct, reasons given for accessing or not accessing components). Questionnaires have been used to assess changes in self-efficacy, expectancy for success, interest in and self-efficacy for biology, valuing of gateway courses, and perceived costs.

Broader Impacts.

Beyond improving student retention in STEM gateway courses, the proposed study has broader implications for increasing both student retention and participation in STEM fields. If the proposed interventions are successful in promoting student achievement and completion of introductory biology courses, it is likely that more students will persist in their majors and pursue employment in STEM. Creating a “user manual” that other faculty and researchers can use, together with peer-reviewed publications and web dissemination could lead to broad uptake of the interventions. Increases in retention and participation are vital to the nation’s goals of international economic competition in STEM fields. In addition, given Temple’s diverse and representative population, the study has the potential to improve the participation of underrepresented minority students in STEM. It is estimated Black and Hispanic individuals of color represent only 7% of the STEM workforce; if the proposed interventions help retain students of color in STEM majors, they will represent a clear means for such racial gaps. Given the status of STEM fields in the nation’s economy, closing these gaps are vital to decreasing socioeconomic inequality and improving the social mobility of individuals of color.

Dissemination efforts include journal articles, conference presentations, and a web-based how-to guide for creating analogous interventions across any STEM discipline.

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