Student looks at microscope

Student Experience Project (SEP) Supports Equity, Belonging, and Academic Success

May 31, 2022

CU Denver is one of six schools that has been working for the past three years with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and Coalition of Urban Serving Universities on an equity-focused effort to boost student achievement by fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging. Made possible through funding from the Raikes Foundation, the Student Experience Project (SEP) encourages faculty to adopt practices that make first-generation and underserved students feel welcome and supported while improving academic performance. Effective measures taken include improving communication, revising syllabuses and course policies, and highlighting the work of diverse scholars.

Rich Allen

“The project was a collaboration with other learning partners that included a group of social psychologists across the U.S. and Canada associated with the The College Transition Collaborative and the Project for Educational Research that Scales (PERTS),” says CU Denver Project Lead Richard Allen, professor of psychology and associate dean for academic and strategic planning. “The point was to bring the learning from academic research on issues of social psychological variables and barriers to student success—things like growth mindsets, trust and fairness, identity threat, and belonging—to bear on interventions faculty could use in the classroom to improve outcomes.”

For example, one study in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses showed that in courses where instructors had a fixed mindset about students’ abilities, the racial outcome gap was more than twice that as in courses where faculty reported having a growth mindset.  

Removing Student Success Barriers in STEM Courses

To help create a growth mindset, participating STEM faculty members at CU Denver attended College Transition Collaborative workshops and met regularly to update syllabuses, identify and remove barriers, and incorporate inclusive course policies and language that promoted learning and belonging. “One of the target areas was ‘wise feedback,’ the idea that when you provide students with feedback you want to assure them that the standards are high and you believe they can meet those standards, and offer specific, actionable feedback on how they can improve,” says STEM Project Lead Laurel Hartley, associate professor of integrative biology and director of the Office of Inclusive Excellence in STEM. In contrast to general statements like “good job” or “study harder next time,” wise feedback identifies steps students can take and available resources they can access to support improvement.

STEM faculty training also included how to identify and address identity threat and identity safety issues in the classroom. “For example, the shooting that happened in Boulder last year or violence against Asian American communities during COVID,” Hartley says. “We practiced addressing those kinds of identity threatening incidents and how to use inclusive language that makes students feel welcome and free to talk with each other. Faculty really liked the workshops and SEP materials because they provided specific, practical, actionable examples supported by research that really worked in the classroom.”

Soliciting Student Input to Create Meaningful Change

Similarly, the project engaged students in creating positive changes through the inclusive excellence intern project that asked four undergrad students for suggestions to improve student experience in introductory biology courses. “They came up with a ‘Welcome to Biology Campus’ page for students in all sections of intro bio,” Hartley says. “And they included social things like introducing students to clubs because this was during COVID and the thought was that students would be missing that social interaction.”

Students are currently identifying examples of diverse scientists and curriculum created by diverse scientists to infuse in the intro biology course sequence and looking at how welcoming student environments are, Hartley says. “Things like, are there posters on the wall of diverse scientists, are there flyers that help students know where to go when they struggle, how can we make these physical spaces more encouraging and inclusive.”

Employing SEP Strategies to Support Long-Term Equity

Allen considers participation in the SEP program a critical part of CU Denver’s 2030 Strategic Plan goal of becoming an equity-serving institution. “This work focuses on messages that we as a faculty send to students, how we build our courses, and how small changes can create a learning environment that engenders belonging and safety,” he says. “Each communication we have with our students is an opportunity to interact in a way that helps students toward their goal. This work is about our entire orientation as a campus. It’s exciting because there are so many ways we can improve.”

Hartley has seen dramatic results. “It surprised me how impactful something like wise feedback can be,” she says. “When I implement it, I see vast differences in how my students perceive the feedback, what they do with it, and how they grow. Sometimes it just takes a mindset shift or change in approach to see a student go from a D to an A.”

CU Denver will also partner with APLU and the University of New Mexico on a grant to bring SEP resources to graduate teacher assistant (TA) training. “Graduate TAs teach a lot of students in STEM so incorporating things like growth mindset and identity safety in their training could bring a real culture change to graduate programs,” Hartley says.  

Going forward, the CU Denver SEP team plans to share these tools more widely within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) Office of Inclusive Excellence in STEM. “The faculty and staff who have worked on this project are advocates now and can encourage and help others to do this work,” Allen says.