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IES Grant

Title: Bootstrapping Achievement and Motivation in STEM: An Integrated Cognitive-Motivational Intervention to Improve Biology Grades
Center: NCER Year: 2014
Principal Investigator: Cromley, Jennifer Awardee: Temple University
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (8/1/2014-7/31/2018) Award Amount: $1,379,250
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A140602

Co-Principal Investigators: Avi Kaplan and Michael Balsai (Temple University); Tony Perez (Old Dominion University)

Purpose: First-year biology college courses constitute a gateway for success in multiple STEM majors, yet many academically able college students struggle to learn and understand concepts in these courses and do not perceive them as relevant to their future career. Some researchers and practitioners recommend a radical change in pedagogy, from lecture-based to innovative student-centered instruction, in order to improve student engagement and motivation. Although such changes may help promote positive attitudes and improved learning, making these changes requires a major overhaul of the curriculum and can be difficult to implement across diverse higher education settings. The purpose of this project is to develop an online curriculum approach for teaching introductory biology that could be adopted and implemented by other postsecondary institutions without overburdening instructors.

Project Activities: The research team will develop a suite of very brief web-based supports delivered via Blackboard that are built around and supplement ways in which faculty are already teaching. This suite will include “wrap-around” cognitive and motivational supports. During the first two years the team will vary the types of supports to see which may prove most effective, and during the final year, they will carry out a pilot test of the intervention in authentic classroom settings.

Products: The products from this study will be a set of course-specific videos and messages, the principles for developing such materials for any gateway STEM course, and a faculty guide to create such materials for other courses. Peer-reviewed publications will also be produced.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This project will take place at a postsecondary institution in Pennsylvania.

Sample: Participants include undergraduate students enrolled in introductory biology courses.

Intervention: The intervention will include a number of possible components depending on results the researchers find during the development stage. The six initial components include the following: (1) brief weekly multimedia videos intended to prime students’ relevant prior knowledge; (2) videotaped lectures of professor-selected videotaped PowerPoint lecture segments; (3) videotaped worked examples of short, medium-difficulty problems; (4) relevance writing tasks, in which students write a series of letters to themselves regarding the relevance of the biology course for their learning, major, career, and life goals; (5) targeted self-efficacy-enhancing feedback intended to build student self-efficacy; and (6) targeted messages to help offset what students perceive about what they must sacrifice in order to complete the biology course. The final combination of components will be delivered via Blackboard and used in conjunction with typical classroom instruction (e.g., lectures).

Research Design and Methods: This project will use an iterative design in which various combinations of the six components (three cognitive and three motivational strategies) are tested against one another to determine which components should be in the final version. The initial design of the materials will occur during the fall of 2014. The materials and online approach will be tested and refined over the course of two years with the first round of testing occurring in spring semester of 2015 and the fall semester of 2015 and the second round starting the following year. The final pilot test of the complete intervention will take place between the spring and fall semester of 2017.

To develop the weekly priming videos, the researchers will review the chapter sections to determine the relevant content for each week and write scripts for the videos. Experts will review the scripts to ensure usability and technical accuracy. The worked examples videos will be developed in a similar fashion, with the research team reviewing end-of-section problems in the textbook, homework, and final exam data to identify types of problems to use. The videotapes of lectures will be created during the relevant semester, using actual classroom lectures. Researchers will develop the “offsetting costs” videos using statements from interviews with advanced students who took the course in a previous semester. The other materials (e.g., the relevance writing prompts) will be derived from pre-existing work in the field. During the spring and fall of 2015, the research team will test combinations of one cognitive and one motivational component. Depending on the results of those tests, they will have different combinations and will test combinations of two cognitive and two motivational components during the spring and fall of 2016. They intend to finalize the full prototype and pilot it during the last year using an experimental design. In this study, students will be randomly assigned within large lecture courses to receive one of the variations of the intervention.

Control Condition: Throughout the development phase, classrooms will be randomly assigned to receive the different versions of the intervention, with each group being a comparison group for the others. During the final year pilot, students will receive one of the two remaining, promising versions, and the outcomes of these two groups will be compared.

Key Measures: Key outcome measures include course exams and final course grades. In addition, the research team will collect data that indicate extent of access to and timing of accessing supplementary materials (e.g., number of times the videotape of a class session was accessed). Researchers will also use questionnaires to assess changes in self-efficacy, valuing of gateway courses, and perceived costs.

Data Analytic Strategy: Researchers will use planned comparisons to test the effect of each of the six components, covarying for student entering motivation and fidelity to treatment, and adjusting for nested data as needed. Researchers will use secondary analyses to test whether motivation and problem-solving skills mediate the effects of conditions; these will be tested using path analysis.

Project website:


Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Cromley, J.G., Perez, T., and Kaplan, A. (2016). Undergraduate STEM Achievement and Retention Cognitive, Motivational, and Institutional Factors and Solutions. Policy Insights From the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1): 4–11. Full Text.

Kaplan, A., Cromley, J. G., Perez, T., Dai, T., Mara, K. R., & Balsai, M. J. (in press). The role of context in educational RCT findings: A call to redefine "evidence-based practice." Educational Researcher.

Perez, T., Dai, T. Kaplan, A., Cromley, J. G., Brooks, W. D., White, A. C., Mara, K. R., & Balsai, M. J. (2019). Interrelations among expectancies, task values, and perceived costs in undergraduate biology achievement. Learning and Individual Differences, 72, 26-38.


Cromley, J. G., & Mara, K. (2018). Comparing and contrasting within diagrams: An effective study strategy. In P. Chapman, G. Stapleton, A. Moktefi, S. Perez-Kriz, & F. Bellucci (Eds.) Diagrams 2018, LNAI 10871, pp. 492–499.