How Instructor Support Impacts STEM Results at Minority Serving Institutions – Digital Promise

How Instructor Support Impacts STEM Results at Minority Serving Institutions

An image of a stats instructor leaning over a table of university students to offer them support on a task

January 11, 2024 | By and

At Digital Promise, we believe supportive and culturally aware environments produce positive STEM outcomes, particularly for students of color. Our evaluation research aims to reveal students’ experiences in statistics courses at minority serving institutions (MSIs) and non-MSIs to better understand instructional practices that reduce or contribute to learning gaps.

Our early findings suggest that instructor practices expressing care for students’ well-being and success within individual STEM courses are often missing, even within institutions with a mission to serve minority students.

Minority serving institutions, established to actively support historically and systematically excluded (HSE) learners through higher education, fall into multiple categories, including: Asian American & Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISI), Native American Serving Nontribal Institutions (NASNTI), and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI). To receive an AANAPISI or NASNTI designation, an institution must enroll at least 10% of the corresponding student population; an HSI designation requires an enrollment that is 25% or more Hispanic.

MSIs have been found to foster supportive campus environments for underrepresented students pursuing undergraduate STEM degrees (Espinosa et al., 2018). A higher proportion of historically underrepresented students (e.g., Black, Asian, and Hispanic) attending MSIs earn STEM degrees compared to underrepresented students attending predominantly white institutions (MSIs, 2021). One interpretation for this difference is that MSIs are more likely to have an expansive cultural climate. Therefore, they create environments that increase diversity in STEM by supporting students from groups that have been historically and systematically excluded. Their practices could provide an example for predominantly white institutions, leading to improved STEM outcomes among the underrepresented students that attend them.

An example of a successful MSI-created program to increase STEM diversity is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program works with cohorts of students for four years, providing STEM community, knowledge building, research, and mentorship. The program has become the nation’s top producer of Black doctoral and dual-doctoral graduates in STEM fields. Many institutions have modeled their own programs after the Meyerhoff Program, including Howard University (Karsh STEM Scholars Program), Penn State (Millennium Scholars Program), UNC Chapel Hill (Chancellor’s Science Scholar Program), Stony Brook University (Simon’s STEM Scholars Program), and University of California schools (Chan Zuckerberg initiative).

These examples give us hope for a more diverse STEM world, but more intentional work is still needed to address inequities and improve the experiences of underrepresented students at many more institutions. We know campuswide support programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars Program can make an important difference for HSE students. Much less is known about how to create supportive environments within courses that lead to better outcomes for these students in institutions that lack the funding or leadership for efforts like the Meyerhoff Scholars Program.

Throughout the spring of 2023, Digital Promise evaluated how students from different MSIs and non-MSIs experienced their introductory statistics courses—an important course that equips students with the skills to read and evaluate various results and outcomes that are prevalent in our headlines, healthcare, and policy decisions. Introductory statistics courses also pose as gateway courses as more than a third of Black, Latine, and low-income undergrads who enroll do not earn credit for the course, which ultimately leads to higher DFW (D, F, or withdrawal) rates among them. One question we asked was whether instructors reached out to students to express care (e.g., checked in on students’ progress, or connected with them personally), an instructor practice that our prior research found to be associated with course satisfaction and increased sense of belonging (Means & Neisler, 2021).

Our sample included six institutions with an MSI designation, including three HSIs, one AANAPISI, one NASNTI, and one with both an HSI and AANAPISI designation. When results for these institutions were compared to those for five non-MSI institutions, we found that 58% of students in MSI institutions reported that their statistics instructors reached out to express care about how they performed in the course, compared to 65% of students at non-MSI institutions. This result appeared counterintuitive given prior findings that MSIs were more culturally responsive.

An image of a bar chart indicating the percentages of students who were reached out to at MSIs and non MSIs.

Looking within the MSI group at specific MSI designations showed that this is not a homogenous group. The percentage of students who reported their instructors reached out to express care about how they performed in the course:

  • PWI Institution: 65% of students
  • HSI Institution: 75% of students
  • AANAPISI Institution: 54% of students
  • NASNTI Institution: 24% of students
  • AANAPISI/HSI institution: 24% of students

An image of a bar chart indicating the percentages of students who were reached out to at all of the different type of MSIs

At non-MSIs (which are predominantly white-serving institutions) and HSIs, statistics instructors seem to be more likely to send messages expressing care about how their students do in the course. In contrast, at NASNTI and AANAPISI institutions, student care does not seem to be expressed through electronic messaging. It may be that personal messages from instructors are less consistent with the prevailing culture of these institutions or that caring is expressed in other ways.

We acknowledge the need to be cautious in interpreting these data given the small samples of different kinds of MSIs. What we can say with confidence is that use of this practice, which can be an important part of establishing a productive student-instructor relationship, varies widely across instructors. We are currently examining a much broader array of instructor practices related to supporting students’ sense of belonging in statistics courses taught by 17 instructors at 11 institutions. The new data will provide a much richer portrait of instructor practices and our analyses will examine relationships between these practices and students’ sense of belonging and feeling supported in their statistics class.

Historically, NASNTI has had fewer resources than other higher education institutions. So, this also raises the question of whether statistics instructors at such institutions have the capacity and tools to identify and respond to their students’ individual needs. Our future work will include investigating the impact of introducing statistics courseware, incorporating tools for identifying individual student needs, and sending personalized messages to students within all these types of MSIs.

Interested in implementing introductory statistics courseware at your institution? Please check out our STATS webpage for more information!


Dou, R., Hazari, Z., Dabney, K., Sonnert, G., & Sadler, P. (2019). Early informal STEM experiences and STEM identity: The importance of talking science. Science Education, 103(3), 623-637.

Espinosa, L. L., McGuire, K., & Jackson, L. M. (2018). Minority serving institutions: America’s underutilized resource for strengthening the stem workforce. America’s Underutilized Resource for Strengthening the STEM Workforce | The National Academies Press.

Minority serving institutions program. U.S. Department of the Interior. (2021).

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