Reflective Waves: Creating and Applying Classroom Interventions with the Experiments Working Group

By Ashley Atkinson

Edited by Nita Tarchinski

Continuing with our Reflective Waves series, where we showcase important SEISMIC efforts and initiatives that have taken place over the past five years, Working Group 2 (WG2) takes the spotlight. Also known as the Experiments Working Group, WG2 focuses on classroom interventions that seek to understand disparities and foster equity across multiple disciplines and universities. Throughout the duration of SEISMIC, over 70 members have been involved with WG2, supporting multiple projects and giving workshops, poster presentations, and talks at both SEISMIC and external events.

Co-chairs Vanessa Woods and Mike Wilton both joined WG2 because they were interested in applying interventions to their own classrooms. Woods and Wilton are associate teaching professors at the University of California Santa Barbara, with Woods working within the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and Wilton working within the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. I recently had the chance to catch up with Woods and Wilton, reflecting on WG2’s progress over the past few years and their perspectives as co-chairs. WG2, like Working Groups 1 and 3, was established at the 2019 SEISMIC Summer Meeting to help organize and encourage collaborative efforts. “We were perceived to be those that were gonna go in and tinker something in their classroom and see the impacts on student outcomes,” Wilton says.

WG 2 Co-Chair Mike Wilton

WG 2 Co-Chair Vanessa Woods

In addition to establishing the Experiments Working Group at the Summer Meeting in 2019, four project ideas were proposed and taken on by participants. One of these was the Access to Practice (AtP) project, originally coordinated by Maggie Safronova and Linda Adler-Kassner. AtP involves faculty designing low-stakes writing assignments that students will peer-review in order to improve their learning in the course. “Instructors, as experts, have ways that they think and talk and they don’t actually explain those ways very well,” Woods says. “Students […] don’t really have those same structures and understanding of all of those norms. That’s why we call it Access to Practice – how do you give students access to how the discipline talks?” As many say, practice makes perfect.

Access to Practice also capitalizes on how the process of writing, reviewing, and revising improves students’ understanding of concepts and conventions. “It allows students to engage with knowledge in a way that helps them to tackle hard concepts,” Wilton says. He gives the example of his students being tasked with explaining a child’s genetic abnormality to their parents: “They have to write their answer in around 400 words, and that gets reviewed by two of their peers.” This communal learning exercise, which has both prompts and rubrics designed by faculty and project leadership together, has had a surprising finding: students seem to learn more by reviewing others than by being reviewed themselves.

In addition to the structured peer review exercises improving student learning and success, preliminary data shows that participation in the written exercises can increase feelings of disciplinary belonging in students. Faculty at UCSB have the opportunity to participate in the intervention, and the AtP leadership team has worked hard to share the impactfulness of their peer review exercises through publications (e.g., Woods et al., 2021) and presentations. “We’ve done lots of workshop presentations for instructors about how to create structured peer reviews,” Woods says. Outside of local UCSB meetings, Woods and Safronova presented at SABER West 2023, where their theme was Supporting Equitable Transitions in STEM Education.

Office Hours Project Leader Lalo Gonzalez

Another one of WG2’s core projects is the Office Hours Project, led by Lalo Gonzalez, also an associate teaching professor at UCSB. Those within the project have worked hard to identify best practices associated with office hours and collect data through faculty surveys, student surveys, and an “office hours tracker” that documents the characteristics of students attending office hours. Characteristics include categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, first-generation status, and academic standing.

STEM instructors can investigate what is happening in their own classroom by collecting data and working with Office Hours leadership to interpret their findings. Wilton recalls that Gonzalez and a few others acted as mentors, helping instructors develop their education research skills by qualitatively coding survey responses and identifying themes. One trend they observed: first-generation and racially minoritized students were not (or rarely) attending office hours.

Wilton shared that to address these results, he and other instructors modified course syllabi to detail how their courses are designed to support students with learning, and how this support includes office hours. The syllabi also include an explanation of office hours norms, which, for Wilton and his colleagues, have shifted from one-on-one conversations in offices to open rooms with tables where students can work in groups. Finally, those who participate in the Office Hours Project normalize struggling and assure students that it’s a part of learning. Because office hours can seem scary and intimidating, these instructors have taken steps to make it a friendlier environment and lower potential barriers to attending.

Perry Samson, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Michigan, has led two different projects within WG2. The Backchannel Project seeks to evaluate if a backchannel – a way for students to ask questions anonymously during class and receive answers in real time – increases students’ sense of belonging. As being called on in a classroom or visiting office hours can be intimidating, oftentimes students will resign to having their questions unvoiced or seek the answers elsewhere. This can lead to lower academic success for students who are unable to receive clarification. To address this, Samson’s backchannel allows students to ask questions through their phone or laptop anonymously during lectures and graduate teaching assistants address the question online. Not only does this allow students to get their questions answered, but students can also see they’re not alone in having questions. Woods reports the project has found that underrepresented students utilize backchannels more than raising their hand, or other non-anonymous forms of communication.

Backchannel and CLUE Project Leader Perry Samson

Samson’s second project, Contextual Linkaging for Undergraduate Education (CLUE), uses Artificial Intelligence to transcribe, annotate, index, and take notes on recorded lectures from instructors. “It’s almost like having bookmarks,” Wilton says. Students who miss class or want to review a lecture’s content can re-watch the recording entirely but also use the added indexes, notes, keywords, and additional resources to enhance their studying process. Both of Samson’s projects received NSF funding (NSF2013316, NSF2016421) and have been featured in several articles (Koenig, 2019 & Priebe, 2022), extending the impact of these projects to wider contexts and ultimately impacting more students.

Both Wilton and Woods are thrilled with the work of WG2. “A strength of Working Group 2 is that you see the direct impacts of the work you’re doing,” Wilton says. “It’s like looking under the microscope.” In addition to the successes of WG2’s projects, the co-chairs have come away with important lessons for managing multi-institutional, collaborative work. First, regular communication is critical and must occur throughout the working group: between participants in the same project, between leadership in different projects, between project leadership and co-chairs, and between co-chairs and SEISMIC Central – SEISMIC’s administrative team. Keeping folks in the loop, alongside having people hold organizational roles, ensures that projects stay on track and deadlines are met. On a similar note, meeting in person (like at writing retreats, summer meetings, or the Weeks of SEISMIC), was incredibly helpful for re-energizing project groups and making large pushes toward goals.

This last year of SEISMIC is bittersweet for WG2: some projects are winding down, and others are growing to become self-sustainable, no longer needing as much support from SEISMIC. However, we are immensely proud of the many important interventions developed and implemented throughout the years. “I really do hope that the working groups stay as a collaborative project that keeps going,” Woods says, thinking about a potential SEISMIC 2.0. Indeed, there is still plenty of work to be done and interventions to be assessed when looking at equity and inclusion in STEM courses. However, regardless of what the collaboration looks like in the future, SEISMIC has given multiple experiments the push they need to hit the ground running.


Ashley Atkinson

Ashley Atkinson is a Program Assistant for SEISMIC Central, ensuring that SEISMIC initiatives have the help they need to run smoothly. Her primary responsibilities include maintaining the SEISMIC website, managing the Newsletter, and supporting projects. As an alumnus of Michigan State University, Ashley is passionate about equity and inclusion in STEM alongside science communication. She is currently pursuing an MA in Science Writing and Johns Hopkins University.