SEISMIC hopes to shift approach to large-lecture STEM classes


Pitt and other large, public research universities have many advantages for students, but intro science courses in huge lecture rooms is not always one of them.

“The experience of being lost in a big lecture space that is going way too fast … is actually a very large challenge,” says Chris Schunn, professor of psychology and Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) senior scientist, “and it’s a very inequitable environment” for some students.

That’s why Pitt is one of the founding 10 universities and will host a week this year of SEISMIC, which helps these institutions develop and disseminate ways to create better learning environments in introductory STEM courses. Schunn and Chandralekha Singh, distinguished professor of physics & astronomy and director of the Discipline-based Science Education Research Center (dB-SERC), are among the organizers.

SEISMIC is about “understanding what the problems are and how you can learn about (which students are) succeeding and who is not succeeding in your courses,” Schunn says. “A lot of them are perfectly prepared, it’s just your environment that makes them feel excluded.”

Starting Jan. 16 on Zoom and continuing Jan. 17 to 19 on campus, SEISMIC aims to highlight research on the issues universities have in common, what solutions work in each and how those solutions can be adapted for different institutions and different STEM classes.

If faculty focus on students with disadvantages, Singh says, this narrows the achievement gap and students are much more motivated to learn and succeed: “We are really trying to see how our adaptations and replications work compared to other schools. We want faculty to intentionally focus resources on students who traditionally feel like they have been left out (and) provide support throughout the semester.”

Singh says one quick and effective aid for students in large lecture courses — which will be featured at a SEISMIC session — aims to increase students’ sense that they fit in the class and can learn effectively. “When people come to science (courses),” says Singh, “they have worries about belonging. This is worse for minoritized students” who don’t always see role models behind the instructor’s lectern.

In this intervention, the instructor lets students know early on that struggling at the first stages of coursework is universal, experienced by the instructors themselves and by students who eventually excelled (as evidenced by brief testimonials from these students). As a results, beginning students “realize that ‘If I struggle it means I am on my way to learning something,’ ” Singh says. “They realize this is actually a good thing — this is how they learn something.

“It really changes the relationship between students and teachers,” she adds, and can erase grade differences between confident students and those with self-doubts, Schunn says.

SEISMIC will feature many short overviews of successful classroom interventions and adaptations, offering attendees roundtables among which they can rotate for more detailed discussion of how these changes can be applied to their own specific class. The event is focused on STEM courses but its lessons can be applied to a variety of other course types, Schunn emphasizes.

“We are hoping that more departments will be interested in seeing innovations,” Singh says, “and not replicating but adapting them to their own situations.”

Pitt’s SEISMIC week is sponsored by dB-SERC, the University Center for Teaching and Learning and the LRDC. Event details can be found here. The deadline to register for Pitt Week of SEISMIC is Jan. 12. Register here.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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