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New Study Reveals Pandemic-Related Changes’ Effects On STEM Students

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A photo of Alma Mater at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN – A new study of 182 students in a biology course at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign last spring shows that marginalized students don’t necessarily become demotivated under pandemic-related stress. This is in contrast to concerns that arose suggesting underrepresented students would crack under pressure and drop out of college. 

Illinois Newsroom student journalist Carolina Garibay spoke with Jennifer Cromley, educational psychology professor and first author of the study, about these assumptions that were made and why Cromley believes that mindset to be dangerous. 

Jennifer Cromley: “We think of kind of three changes is happening simultaneously. First of all, the courses went online. Second of all, the students weren’t on campus. And third of all, they were with their families. And so there were a lot of changes happening that happened all at once.” 

Carolina Garibay: “And you said that the questions were kind of designed around that idea of motivation and resilience. Can you go over the definitions of motivation and resiliency that you use for the purposes of the study?”

JC: “So we actually gave a very large number of questionnaires, but each student actually only answered two questionnaires. We kept them very short. But some of the kinds of things that we asked about were interest in biology, self-efficacy, or confidence, for the tasks that you need to do, some variables that sort of have to do with how focused you are on grades. We had questions about relatedness to other students. Resilience was actually something that came out when we were analyzing the results. That wasn’t something that we measured.”

CG: “In the news article about this study, too, it mentioned that there are assumptions that a student’s demographic, characteristics and background can determine how resilient they are, and you kind of caution against this, right? I’m curious why and what you think about that.”

JC: “Yeah, so I think we were struck by quite a few articles that were coming out that were saying students of color are being demotivated. We cite a number of them in the study. And, I mean, of course, there have been awful things happening, we don’t, you know, we’re very careful to, you know, put that front and center, but if you assume that a certain demographic is just going to fall apart when bad stuff is going on, well, that really flies in the face of a bunch of other things that we know about resilience, right? So, we know that people can come from very difficult circumstances and accomplish amazing things.”

CG:  “Is there anything really striking that you didn’t really expect to find that you found with the study?”

JC: “Well, I think what surprised me probably will come across as extremely academic, which is, it wasn’t like there was an obvious group that dropped after the first exam and then recovered and another group that just stayed high all the time and another group that stayed low all the time. But I do think that it’s a cautionary tale against stereotyping people. So yeah, maybe that’s kind of also a big, not a surprise, but a reminder about the complexity of human experience because we also had very, very privileged students, and one of them wrote about parents screaming at them constantly to, you know, get an A-plus in the course, not having a quiet place to study and actually having to shut themselves in the bathroom. So I think that as faculty and staff, academic advisors, you know, work with students and talk with students, it’s just really important to find out from that student what is their situation like, how are they doing, and not to make any assumptions on the basis of demographics, but to, you know, and not to dismiss any history, right? Not to act as if everybody has the same history, same privileges, but to find out from that person, what are they going through right now?” 

COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. We recommend checking the Coronavirus Information Center for the most recent numbers and guidance.

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Carolina Garibay

Carolina Garibay

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