Professor Cues Affect STEM Motivation
Imagine it's your first year in college and you're trying to determine what career path is right for you. One possibility is pursuing a major in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), so you decide to enroll in a weekly seminar for students considering joining a STEM research lab. During one of the weekly meetings, you raise your hand to ask a question. The instructor notices your hand and peers up from their slides. You ask your question, and the instructor replies with: "I'm not sure why you're asking this, we went over this already."
Chances are you don't have to imagine this scenario because something like this has happened to you—or you've witnessed a similar situation—before. We surveyed college students about their experiences asking questions in a STEM course (such as math) or a non-STEM course (such as English). Students reported receiving fewer positive than negative verbal responses from instructors when they asked questions in their STEM courses compared to their non-STEM courses. Not surprisingly, they also said they were less likely to ask questions in their STEM courses than in non-STEM courses.
How would this instructor's response make you feel? Would it shake your confidence? Would it make you less motivated to join a STEM lab? What if instead, the professor had responded to your question with, "That's a great question, I'm glad you brought that up." Could this small action make you more likely to express interest in pursuing STEM? And how might the instructor's responses to your questions affect your motivation and interest?
How Do Instructor Cues Influence Motivation?
Students' confidence and belonging may influence their interest and motivation in STEM. Confident people believe that they can succeed. Belonging refers to how much people feel they fit in and are accepted. We expected that when students imagined their instructors responding to their questions in a positive way, students would feel more confident and accepted, which would boost their motivation and interest in STEM.
We conducted five experiments to test these ideas. College students imagined receiving a response from an instructor to a question they asked. The response was either positive ("That's a great question, I'm glad you brought that up"), negative ( "I'm not sure why you're asking this question, we went over this already") or neutral ("We're actually out of time today, so please hold your question till next time"). They then reported their feelings of confidence, belonging, interest in joining the research lab, and intentions to recruit others to the lab.
When students imagined receiving a positive rather than a negative or neutral response from their STEM instructor after asking a question, they felt more confidence and belonging in STEM. Increased feelings of confidence and belonging, in turn, were related to greater reported intentions to join a STEM lab and to recruit other students to join as well.
These results held when we varied aspects of the imagined situation. The same pattern of findings emerged when students imagined positive instructor responses directed toward another classmate, in both a public and private setting, and in a STEM or non-STEM context.
Do Positive Instructor Responses Affect All Students Equally?
Some students may be more vulnerable to these effects because they doubt their belonging or ability in certain areas. For example, being 'bad at math' is a common stereotype that negatively affects women's experiences in STEM. Women often feel uncertain about their belonging in STEM and perform worse when reminded of negative gender stereotypes about women's math abilities. Based on these ideas, we reasoned that women, compared to men, would react more strongly to imagining receiving certain types of instructor responses to their questions in STEM contexts.
Indeed, compared to men, women reported greater confidence, belonging, and intentions to join a STEM lab after imagining their instructor responding to their question with, "That's a great question, I'm glad you brought that up." Women also reported lower confidence, belonging, and intentions to join a STEM lab after imagining a negative instructor response or even a neutral instructor response of, "We're actually out of time today, so please hold your question till next time." Women may be more likely to interpret neutral responses as negative or dismissive in STEM contexts if they are already highly vigilant for cues of acceptance or rejection in the environment.
Overall, instructors' positive responses to students' questions may be an important situational cue that can bolster students' confidence, belonging, and interest in academic settings. As we enter a new academic year, instructors should remember that their actions, however small, can shape students' motivation and interest. While our research focused on a college setting, these findings may also have implications for the workplace. Managers should be aware that their feedback to employees similarly has the potential to shape employee motivation, work output, and retention. This is especially important for fields such as STEM, where students and non-students alike may doubt their abilities and inclusion.
What about those on the receiving end of less-than-positive feedback? It may be good to remember that one person's opinion doesn't necessarily reflect your abilities, and to find a trusted mentor or colleague to help you process the feedback.
For Further Reading
Park, L. E., O'Brien, C., Italiano, A., Ward, D.E., & Panlilio, Z. (2023). "That's a good question!" Instructors' positive responses to students' questions improves STEM-related outcomes. Self and Identity, 22(6), 849-895. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2023.2207836
Park, L.E., Kondrak, C., Ward, D.E., & Streamer, L. (2018). Positive feedback from male authority figures boosts women's math outcomes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 359-383. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167217741312
Murphy, M.C., Steele, C.M., & Gross, J.J. (2007). Signaling threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings. Psychological Science, 18, 879-885. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01995.x
Deborah E. Ward is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, PA. She received her PhD in Social-Personality Psychology from the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Her research focuses broadly on self-esteem, identity-threat, stress and coping, and student experiences in higher education.
Zaviera A. Panlilio is an Adjunct Instructor at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, and studies imposterism among first-generation college students and how framing hardships can impact prosocial motivation.
Lora Park is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. She received her PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the self, motivation, well-being, interpersonal processes, and interventions to broaden participation in STEM.