There are striking and persistent inequalities in college students’ experiences and success rates. In addition, students from all groups are facing large and growing levels of anxiety and mental health problems that are undermining their well-being.
What’s standing in the way?
Students’ experiences in classrooms, especially large gateway courses, contribute to their ultimate academic outcomes and their mental health. In particular, learning environments that support students’ experiences of belonging, growth, and purpose can narrow group disparities and promote well-being for all. Unfortunately, too little is known about how faculty can reliably create these kinds of learning environments.
TxMI is an initiative established by the Texas Behavioral Science and Policy Institute (TxBSPI) in collaboration with the College of Natural Sciences (CNS), the College of Liberal Arts (COLA), the College of Education, and the Office of Strategy and Policy. The Institute, embedded within the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, built an action-oriented science and intervention infrastructure to make real-world progress on the critical issue of inclusive learning environments.
The driving assumption underlying TxMI was that faculty are routinely innovating on their teaching practices, but they rarely have the opportunity to articulate their innovations in ways that can help them spread to their colleagues. Furthermore, novel insights in inclusive teaching practices are infrequently shared with faculty in ways that are systematic or easy to use.
Therefore, TxMI uses a research-practice partnership model to connect faculty with leading advances in the behavioral sciences concerning student engagement and well-being. In particular, TxMI supports faculty “fellows” as they develop and implement practices that transform learning and instruction and studies the outcomes among their students.
In a preliminary pilot in the fall of 2020, TxMI collaborated with faculty in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) who collectively taught 3,800 number of students in gateway STEM courses. These faculty demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching in four disciplines – Biology, Chemistry, Math, and Physics – and were willing to innovate. The fellows participated in 15 hours of professional development, reconsidered their course policies and practices, developed at least one novel intervention, collected data on their students’ experiences, and presented about their work at a public showcase event. Faculty’s innovative practices are currently being compiled into a resource library to be used by future faculty fellows. Inspired by the success, we seek to expand the research-practice partnership to include more faculty, colleges, and institutions.
Key Outcomes So Far
- TxMI launched several promising pilots:
- A faculty fellowship program for instructors in large, gateway courses.
- An Undergraduate Learning Assistant (ULA) program for gateway courses
- A “communications audit” of threats to belonging in student probation letters
- A campus-wide TxMI speaker series on student mindsets and equity
- Analysis scripts and reports on equity in progress to degree at UT
- Workshops on inclusive practices for local high school teachers
- TxMI has also led to several scientific breakthroughs:
- A systematic review of discipline-based mindset research and an associated research agenda
- A scalable, video-based intervention for study strategies in intro biology
- A model for experimentally-testing ULA teaching practices using RCTs
- Growth mindset “boosters” that could be evaluated in future experiments
- A “library of practices” developed by faculty that could be evaluated in RCTs
- Overall, TxMI has:
- Elevated awareness of student belonging and mindsets on campus
- Trained instructors to be leaders in changing the culture of teaching at UT
- Developed promising, scalable interventions that could be used widely at UT
- Laid the foundation for an ongoing basic research agenda on inclusive practices
TxMI:Postsecondary was funded on a three-year pilot grant (2020 to 2022) from the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts. The funding has expired and so the overall initiative is on hiatus. However, aspects of TxMI have been incorporated into TIDES. In addition, a new NSF grant, led by TxMI behavioral scientist Eric Smith, will continue evaluating the ULA program and will develop new measures of inclusive teaching practices.
Ultimately, the long-term goal of TxMI remains the same: to spread the teaching innovations across higher education in Texas, starting with other colleges within the University of Texas at Austin and other University of Texas System campuses. TxMI aspires to create a state-wide shared research infrastructure in which social and behavioral scientists can evaluate novel faculty-targeted treatments to improve instruction (e.g., new ways of creating an inclusive climate) using rigorous, randomized trials.