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IES Grant

Title: Developing a Context-Integrated Mindset / Belonging Intervention to Eliminate Demographic-based Underperformance in Challenging Large Lecture Undergraduate Courses
Center: NCER Year: 2021
Principal Investigator: Binning, Kevin R. Awardee: University of Pittsburgh
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (09/01/2021 – 08/31/2025) Award Amount: $1,999,659
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A210167

Co-Principal Investigator: DeAngelo, Linda T.

Purpose: Many postsecondary students, including those at selective schools, may struggle to complete their degrees. These struggles are not evenly distributed. For example, students in large lecture courses and those who may be under-represented in the course or the course's field may be less likely to complete or persist in their programs than other students. Previous research has found that psychosocial interventions show promise for addressing such course-based inequities using highly cost-effective brief interventions. However, it is difficult to  scale up such interventions or to adapt them quickly to new contexts.  In this project, the researchers will develop a framework that will help institutions and course developers integrate two psychosocial interventions – student growth mindsets and sense of belonging – in ways that are aligned to the varying student contexts (such as course where women or minorities may be underrepresented in the field). They will pilot the framework using different courses at one institution and will demonstrate how to leverage psychosocial interventions to improve student outcomes and facilitate social in-class participation.

Project Activities: The researchers will iteratively develop and refine systematic methods for using administrative data and focus groups to identify which students are underperforming in a particular course and understand the students' needs and concerns. After completing the framework and redesigning courses with the framework, the researchers will conduct a pilot study using random assignment  to test the impact on course grades overall and in the targeted demographic group. As part of the pilot study, they will also examine the costs for using the approach to customizing and implementing the intervention.

Products: The researchers will produce intervention materials for a range of course types/specific student concerns, data collection and analysis scripts to allow for systematic-integration into new courses, and a detailed research-based understanding of how and why the intervention works in these courses. They researchers will also produce peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The project will take place in an urban university in Pennsylvania.

Population/Sample: Approximately 8,000 students (2,000 in the pilot study) will participate in the project. The population at the university has median ages between 18- and 20-years old across the targeted courses with the expected demographic characteristics of 53 percent female, 11 percent Asian, 5 percent Black, and 5 percent Hispanic/Latino.

Intervention: The intervention will address students' fundamental need to belong by leveraging sense-of-belonging interventions while equipping them with a growth mindset to help keep them engaged and persisting through adversity. The intervention has three phases. During the first phase, which will take place in the first or second week of the course, the instructor starts a conversation about early college experiences and has students work alone to compete a brief, anonymous writing exercise that describes an experience with a struggle in transitioning to college life. During the second phase, which aims to normalize struggle and growth, students engage with testimonials attributed to upper-level students that convey common struggles and how things improve over time. During the third phase, which focuses on contextual integration, students practice and reinforce a sense of belong and growth mindsets through small group discussions with discussion questions that are designed to help students internalize the intervention message that adversity in college is normal and surmountable. The instructor helps guide these phases and lead classroom discussions.   

Research Design and Methods: The researchers will work in eight different large lecture courses to iteratively design and develop the method for customizing the basic intervention. During this development phase, the team will conduct surveys aligned to their underlying theory-of-action and systematically test alternative intervention designs. They will conduct focus groups with students and interviews and focus groups with instructors to further guide the improvement process. After completing the method and developing the customized intervention for the courses, the researchers will conduct a pilot study using a randomized-control trial. They will use course grades and elimination of demographic-based underperformance within the grades as the primary outcome measure of both iterative improvement work (Years 1–3) and the final pilot test (Year 4) .

Control condition: The control condition will consist of a different comparison "ice-breaker" activity that will focus on social bonding (e.g., small group activities to help students get to know one another) but will not include elements relevant to growth mindsets or sense of belonging in college.

Key Measures: The primary outcome is demographic-based underperformance in course grades (i.e., effects of race/ethnicity and gender, controlling for high school grade point average and SAT/ACT scores). The researchers will also use other data such as behavioral data (such as attendance) and survey-based measures of student beliefs and learning behaviors to guide development work and as part of the pilot study.

Data Analytic Strategy: During the development phase, the researchers will use structural equation modeling of the quantitative data. For the pilot test, they will use  hierarchal linear models applied to course grades.

Cost Analysis: The researchers will collect data on the time required by various university actors to adapt and implement the intervention.