This page is tailored toward introductory STEM instructors considering running this experiment in their courses. We answer common questions below about what it actually takes to run the experiment and what we think you, and your students, will get out of it. Please reach out to the Contact listed on the side for any questions about this project.


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Perry Samson



What is the Backchannel Project?

Full Project Name: Does a Backchannel for In-Class Questions Increase Students’ Sense of Belonging? 

Many students in first-year courses struggle with their sense of belonging. These students, often female, are often uncomfortable participating in class and hence less likely to gain a sense of belonging in these courses. This team will explore to what degree the establishment of a backchannel in foundational STEM courses — where students can ask questions in class using their phones or computers and see answers in real time from the Teaching Assistants (TAs) to theirs and others questions in class — increase student participation in class inquiry. This raises the likelihood that students can see their questions are not dissimilar from the questions others are asking. This project will determine if students in the classes with these backchannels gain a higher sense of belonging than students in other foundational STEM classes without these backchannels. To run this project the team will need to identify a person on each campus who will find how this backchannel software can work with their institution’s infrastructure, establish courses for using this backchannel and courses on which to compare, and determine and implement the sense of belonging measure that will be used.

Common Questions from Instructors

1. What do faculty need to know to participate?

The project was based on the observation that many students are reluctant to participate verbally in class. Moreover this discomfort has been measured to be stronger in cohorts of students who are traditionally in the minority in many STEM courses.

It is the goal of the project to measure student attitudes about verbal inquiry, quantify the amount of verbal inquiry in class and how that relates to the modes of class delivery and how the quantity of student questions change when students can utilize an anonymous backchannel to ask questions digitally. The project also hopes to track students after the exposure to the anonymous backchannel to see if it influenced their self-assessment of “belongingness” in STEM disciplines.

2. What will faculty (or their students) gain?

Students will gain the ability to participate in classroom inquiry in a safe environment. Questions can be posed digitally and all will see all questions and the responses from the instructor or teaching assistant without the identity of the questioner being revealed.

Instructors will hear from more students and will potentially help create a more inclusive learning environment.

3. What are the steps involved in this project?

The experiment to be conducted consists of the following steps for participating instructors:

  1. Administering a pre-semester survey about student comfort with verbal inquiry and other background information.
  2. Allowing in-class video-taping to identify number and gender (if possible) of verbal questioners as well as modes of course delivery (the latter to identify which teaching strategies or content engender more verbal discussion).
  3. In subsequent term(s), using technology that allows students to pose questions anonymously and digitally.
  4. Participating in course-specific post-term review of results.

4. What are the expected control and treatment groups? Is there flexibility in this if faculty cannot run the project exactly as defined?

Because of the COVID-19 disruption in classes the timetable for this project has been changed. Originally, we had planned on the first measurements to be made in the term starting 2021. These were to be “control” terms with no backchannel tools employed. Unfortunately, in the current online mode of course delivery having no means for students to ask questions is inappropriate. Consequently we have moved the initial term for this project to September 2021.

In the first term of the project measurements will be made of the rate of verbal questions asked in each class including, to the extent possible, the gender of the questioner. We will supply the technology to be used to participating instructors in a “clipped-wing” version with the backchannel removed. Data collected during the initial term will serve as a control with subsequent terms. In subsequent semesters we will turn on the anonymous backchannel capability and collect similar in class observations as well as digital backchannel data.

5. How will information be communicated to people who have expressed interest in the project?

Those interested in participating or learning more can indicate their interest either to Perry Samson (samson@umich.edu) or Nita Kedharnath (nitaked@umich.edu). All will be notified of periodic project meetings. Anyone wishing individual discussion can contact Perry Samson anytime (samson@umich.edu, 734-763-6213).