Community intervention improves STEM scores for ESL participants

PICTURE: A community-based intervention improves STEM scores for students who speak English as a second language. see more

Credit: provided by Indiana University

A study conducted by IU researchers and their colleagues from the US and Canada at 19 universities found that a short social affiliation exercise, conducted online before students come to campus, boosts student performance and perseverance in STEM disciplines – science , technology, engineering and mathematics – who speak English as a second language.

Published this week in the journal Science Advances, the study shows that exercise increases ESL students ’perception that a sense of belonging to campus will grow over time. It also increases the number of STEM points that ESL students have successfully completed, as well as their STEM grades.

As explained by Jennifer LaCosse, a postdoctoral researcher at IU and lead author of the study, ESL students are largely underrepresented in American colleges, especially in STEM fields, and their absence is a disadvantage for both students and the wider economy. Having a college degree, especially in STEM areas, gives ESL students the opportunity for better paid jobs and overall more successful careers. It also creates the diverse and multilingual workforce needed to meet the needs of an increasingly globalized economy.

The results of the study suggest that one way to increase the representation and academic success of ESL students in STEM is to focus on their sense of belonging. “Students often ask,‘ Do I belong here? “and we know that this concern can undermine academic success and perseverance,” LaCosse said.

Students who speak English as a second language often report concerns about inadequacy for students who speak their mother tongue and a lack of social connections. In addition, many are required to pass language tests or enroll in special ESL courses during the first few years of study.

“These policies can metaphorically and literally separate students who do not attend classes from those who do not attend classes during the crucial transition to college when feelings of belonging are crucial,” LaCosse said. “Finding ways to foster a sense of belonging to students who teach ESL can be crucial to their academic success – which we wanted to examine in our research.”

The study used data collected at 19 universities from more than 12,000 STEM students by the College Transition Collaborative, a partnership co-founded by IU social psychologist and co-author of the study Mary Murphy. Students in the study, who were randomly assigned to the treatment of social affiliation, read short stories attributed to younger and older people describing the challenges they faced in their transition to college. Students in the stories initially examined the degree of affiliation to the faculty; and yet, over time, they finally developed a greater sense of belonging. Study participants followed the reading with a writing exercise about their own experiences.

The results of the study found that both ESL and non-ESL students who had a social affiliation exercise expected a greater increase in feelings of belonging from students who received control treatment. However, these psychological gains in affiliation only strengthened the academic perseverance and success of ESL students. In particular, ESL students interested in STEM who received a social affiliation exercise (compared to a control group who did not) completed more STEM courses that began in the first term in college – and this effect was maintained during the first year. ESL students who completed a social affiliation exercise also earned higher STEM scores in term 1 than their ESL peers who did not.

“People often don’t think of ESL students as a disadvantaged group in the same way they do about other disadvantaged students, like blacks or female students,” LaCosse noted. “However, the results of this research provide rigorous empirical evidence that ESL students have similar psychological experiences as other disadvantaged students.”

As co-author Mary Murphy, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at IU, noted, “Because of the large sample size at so many universities, this is one of the first studies to quantitatively examine and alleviate this important psychological barrier for ESL students in STEM fields as they begin faculty “.

“The findings are truly exciting,” LaCosse said, “because the psychological experiences of ESL students in higher education have received far less attention than they deserve. Our research suggests that we need to review existing policies and practices that create and maintain underrepresentation of ESL students.” and in higher education. “


In addition to LaCosse and Murphy, other researchers on the team were Elizabeth Canning, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University and a former postdoctoral researcher at the IU in Murphy’s lab; Nicholas Bowman, professor of education at the University of Iowa; and Christine Logel, associate professor of social development studies at the University of Waterloo.

Funding for the study was provided by the Raikes Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Ontario Higher Education Quality Council, and partner schools.

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