COURAGE in Undergraduate Mathematics

By Erin Moss, Co-editor of DUE Point

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Challenging, Operationalizing, and Understanding Racialized and Gendered Events (COURAGE) in Undergraduate Mathematics is a collaboration between researchers at Rutgers University and Vanderbilt University.  It is supported by the NSF IUSE (Improving Undergraduate STEM Education) program, which funds projects addressing educational advances in STEM fields for both majors and non-majors.

The COURAGE in Undergraduate Mathematics project explores variation in how students and instructors perceive instructional moments across undergraduate pre-calculus and calculus classrooms at a large, predominantly white research university.  Principal Investigator Luis Leyva describes the unique features of this project, some preliminary findings, and its aims for promoting the mathematical success and persistence of historically marginalized students. 

What issues did you seek to address at the outset of your project? 

Past research has documented how quality of instruction in undergraduate mathematics impacts student persistence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Considering the gatekeeping influences of pre-calculus and calculus courses, COURAGE in Undergraduate Mathematics aims to better understand instruction in these entry-level courses that supports students--especially students from historically marginalized backgrounds in STEM--by affirming their identities.

What are some methods you use to gather data relevant to your research questions?  

Thus far, the project has attended to students’ perceptions of instructional moments as being either discouraging or supportive of their mathematics learning. First, student participants across various intersections of gender and racial identities keep a journal of classroom events that they find to be discouraging or supportive to themselves or others. Interviews and focus groups are then conducted for student participants to reflect on the nature of journaled events that they and fellow participants submitted.  

Can you provide an example of instructional moments that students perceive as discouraging or supportive?

As an example of a discouraging event, a Latinx woman reported that her calculus professor reacted differently when she alerted him to a mistake in his teaching as compared to past instances when white men corrected him.  The professor cut her off and provided excuses to avoid admitting his error, thus confusing other students.  The Latinx woman contrasted this event with the professor’s response to corrections from white men, in which he admitted his mistakes and thanked the men. 

Another Latinx woman reported an encouraging moment when her multivariable calculus professor thanked a student for correcting his error and acknowledged the commonality of making mistakes.  She reflected that “this is the type of energy every classroom should have” because it gives students confidence to ask questions.  She contrasted this with instances of professors’ defensiveness to corrections, where they claim the mistake was intentional or announce, “I’m glad you were paying attention.”  

What have you learned so far in implementing this project?  What new questions have arisen?

One insight revealed from our analysis thus far is that instructional moments may bring Black and Latinx women, who are underrepresented in these pre-calculus and calculus courses, to feel more or less visible to their instructors and classmates. We are currently analyzing this phenomenon of visibility among racially minoritized women, its relationship to the nature of particular instructional moments, and how it impacts them as math students.

A new question that has arisen from our analysis is:  What are the features of discouraging instructional moments that bring students to perceive them as racialized, gendered, both, or neither? Unpacking the qualitative nature of these events will support the project team to better understand how historically marginalized students varyingly interpret different instructional moments that impact their experiences as mathematics students.

NSF grants are very competitive.  What unique aspects of your project do you think attracted reviewers’ attention? 

Past research on equity-oriented issues in STEM education has largely drawn on students’ reflections on their experiences after time has elapsed since the occurrence of critical events in their educational trajectories. In our project, journaling allows for more in-the-moment reflections on how students experienced the events and how they characterize their discouraging or supportive nature for mathematics learning.


Another innovative aspect of the project is creating opportunities to gain instructors’ insights about classroom moments that students found to be potentially discouraging or supportive. The majority of past research on historically marginalized groups in STEM education has focused on centering students’ voices about their experiences in and out of the classroom. Our project aims to extend this body of work through the inclusion of both students’ and instructors’ perspectives on classroom moments where discouraging aspects of instruction have, unfortunately, come to be perceived as the norm across undergraduate mathematics classrooms.

How do you hope undergraduate mathematics education will be better off in five years as a result of your work? 

Project team members hope that findings will inform equity-oriented professional development opportunities across university mathematics departments to promote high-quality and socially affirming instruction in pre-calculus and calculus classrooms. We hope that the advancement of such positive learning opportunities increases historically marginalized students’ persistence in post-secondary mathematical study, retention in STEM majors, and positive identity development as learners of mathematics.


Learn more about NSF DUE 1711712 and 1711553

Full Project Name: Challenging, Operationalizing, and Understanding Racialized and Gendered Events (COURAGE) in Undergraduate Mathematics


Project Contact: Luis Leyva, PI

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Erin Moss is a co-editor of DUE Point and an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at Millersville University, where she works with undergraduates from all majors as well as graduate students in the M.Ed. in Mathematics program.