For nearly four decades, Perry Samson didn’t see many students’ hands raised in his large lecture courses.
“I just assumed I nailed class and threw chalk down and did the victory dance,” says the atmospheric science professor at the University of Michigan. “In reality, they probably had questions but were afraid to ask them.”
Posing a question in front of hundreds of classmates can indeed be intimidating for anyone, perhaps even more so for students who aren’t sure they belong in the class to begin with. With this theory in mind, Samson set out to devise a way to make more students more comfortable asking for clarification.
He was especially concerned about his women students, who are in the minority in the College of Engineering and who sometimes leave the department after just one semester of courses.
“We believe part of that is a lack of identity,” Samson says. “Your sense of identity is already kind of questioned because there are so few of you.”
So the professor developed a backchannel tool that allows students to submit questions online during class and receive real-time answers from a teaching assistant. Question-askers remain anonymous to fellow students, but Samson and his TA can see their names.
As Samson suspected, students had plenty of inquiries when offered an alternative method to raise them. But to be sure the backchannel made a real difference, Samson teamed up with colleagues from the university’s school of education to study his tool.
They found that the use of the backchannel dramatically increased student inquiry in class. Cohorts of students who initially expressed more discomfort asking verbal questions, including women and first-generation students, used the tool to ask questions at levels equal to or higher than the class average. And 97 percent of students said they would like to use a backchannel in all large lecture classes.
Samson isn’t the first faculty member to turn to technology to make sure students get equitable time talking in class. For example, after realizing he heard from women students only a third of the time despite them making up half his class, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard created an app that monitors the demographic characteristics of class participants.
Samson thinks students taking introductory science, technology, engineering and math classes could especially benefit from these kinds of tools. Karlie Wells, Samson’s teaching assistant who comes to his classes to answer student questions, agrees.
“Students have told me that in office hours—‘STEM isn’t my thing,’” she says.
Wells, now a master’s student, remembers struggling with the introductory physics class she was required to take in undergrad to become an engineer: “I was really overwhelmed,” she says. “That was the first time I thought maybe I didn’t belong in this field.”
A platform like Samson’s backchannel may have helped her, she says: “It sort of takes the fear away from the students of asking questions in general. It creates a more welcoming and open environment.”
Samson’s research about backchannels is part of the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses project, an effort at 10 universities to make science and math disciplines more equitable and inclusive.
Doing so won’t only benefit students, Samson believes, but the whole field of climate science: “I’ve got to get a broader representation into the science to make it healthier.”