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A woman raises her hand a classroom setting.

Based on a new study, women especially benefit from receiving positive instructor responses to questions in STEM courses.

Lim Weixiang, Zeitgeist Photos/E+/Getty Images

Asking a question in a college classroom can be intimidating. And a recent study suggests that how professors respond to students’ questions matters, both to how students think about themselves and their desire to be involved in the field in question.   

“Instructors’ responses to students’ questions, while being a minimal cue in the environment, can be beneficial to students, especially for members of underrepresented groups such as women,” says first author Lora E. Park, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Crucially, based on the study, it doesn’t matter whether the positive instructor response is public or private, or even directed toward the student in question or a peer.  

What’s the need: Park explains that her recent work mostly asked students about hypothetical scenarios, meaning that she didn’t study actual classroom interactions. But her paper builds on existing research and efforts linking instructors who are perceived as approachable, accessible and supportive to better student outcomes. It therefore “seems plausible that instructors’ positive responses to students’ questions might also have a beneficial effect in the real-world.”  

Park’s study, “‘That’s a Great Question!’ Instructors’ Positive Responses to Students’ Questions Improve STEM-Related Outcomes,” published in Self and Identity, is based on two preliminary surveys of students’ and instructors’ real-world experiences and on five subsequent experimental scenarios.  

The experiments, which make up the bulk of the paper, asked current college student participants to imagine asking (or hearing) questions in a math class context and then receiving (or hearing) a positive, negative or neutral response from the instructor. Students who received the hypothetical positive feedback reported feeling a greater self of self-efficacy—e.g., “I expect to do well in this lab”—and belonging —e.g., “How much would you feel you fit in in this lab?” This predicted their increased intentions to join a theoretical lab setting and to recruit other students to join. Translation: Welcoming responses to students’ questions made students feel more welcome in the field. 

Positive verbal responses from professors were effective whether they were made one-on-one or in front of the class or they were made to the participant or overheard. The effects held whether the hypothetical professors were generally perceived to be warm and friendly or cold and critical.  

Park focused on a STEM setting for her scenarios. That’s partly because when she first surveyed students and instructors about their actual classroom interactions, students reported asking fewer questions and perceived instructors to give less frequent positive responses to questions in their math classes versus their English classes (student gender was not a significant moderating factor here). Mirroring students’ reports, instructors also reported giving less frequent positive responses to students’ questions in math versus English courses, even after controlling for things like instructor gender, number of students in the course and mode of teaching. 

Most of the students in the study were enrolled in a STEM course but not STEM majors.  

What not to say: Park’s study didn’t test particular phrases but rather focused on instructor tone. Still, she underscores that negative and even neutral phrases like the following—which can be perceived as negative—may best be avoided:  

  • “I’m not sure why you’re asking this question.”  
  • “We went over this already.” 
  • “We’re actually out of time today, please hold your question till next time.” 

One alternative to that last response? “That's a great question—I’m glad you brought that up! Let’s discuss that more next time,” or “after class,” or “during my office hours and we can talk more about that.” 

Women in the study especially benefitted from receiving positive instructor responses.  

The impact: “Compared to men, women reported greater confidence, belonging and intentions to join a STEM lab after imagining receiving positive instructor responses,” says Park. Women also reported lower confidence, belonging and intentions to join a STEM lab after imagining a negative instructor response, or even a neutral response (as in, “We’re out of time today, so please hold your question till next time.”). 

Pointing to extant research, including her own prior work on instructor feedback, Park says that women and other underrepresented minorities may doubt their ability and belonging in certain academic spaces. So instructors’ responses to students’ questions in these contexts “may be especially important.”  

Park says her research shows that “norms and expectations of giving certain types of feedback” vary by discipline. In math courses, for example, “the norm is not to give a lot of positive feedback, conveying a job well done, but to give objective feedback, indicating students’ overall score or performance.” In English courses, meanwhile, there’s “more of a norm to give positive feedback and corrective feedback intended to help students improve and learn from their mistakes.”  

Given that math and other STEM courses—especially large, gateway sections—have been shown to be perceived by students to be intimidating, competitive and conveying a weed-out mentality, she adds, “positive responses to students in these types of courses may be especially beneficial for students.” 

Tell us about a time when you know that positive feedback made a difference in the life of a student. Share your story here.

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