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UCI Professor Adrienne Williams Researches Effective Study Strategies for Student Success

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Dr. Adrienne Williams, a UCI professor, is one professor who is setting the stage today at the post-secondary level for increased undergraduate engagement and success in STEM education. 

According to “Successful STEM Education,” a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative that discusses the importance of student success in STEM which Williams advocates for, the current demand for STEM workers is greater than the number of available applicants who have trained for specific STEM careers. This is due in large part to the academic curriculum set by U.S. education standards. 

As noted by the 2016 Gallop Student Poll Survey, the K-12 system has shown declining levels of student engagement, where 74% of younger students in the fifth grade remain engaged with class material, while 34% of older students in the 12th grade demonstrate less engagement with their education. This disengagement is witnessed in STEM education as well. However, research has shown that students from any school or background can engage with the STEM curriculum and become successful in the field with transformed instruction in districts and schools. This transformation in instruction would include spending more time on teaching science and math. As this becomes implemented in K-12 schooling, the same changes are expected to occur at the college level.

UCI’s Education Research Initiative, who Williams is the associate director of, is actively working to address equity and success in education within the UCI undergraduate population. Connecting with underrepresented minority, first-generation and low income students, the initiative looks to “improve educational experiences.” 

The initiative’s goals focus on identifying and applying instructional practices and policies that can aid students. In this way, the initiative can increase success in post-secondary education while reducing educational inequalities that present hardships for undergraduate students as well. 

With specific interests in biology education and equity in STEM education, Williams is heavily involved in the initiative’s goals. 

Williams’ STEM education research addresses equity and success, and her research has shown that this success heavily relies on a student’s ability to interact with STEM course material. Increased interactions with STEM material have been able to effectively facilitate active engagement and improvement in student performance. 

In Williams’ research paper, “Seven Practical Strategies to Add Active Learning to a Science Lecture,” she lists seven helpful strategies that faculty members can implement in their own classrooms. 

Courtesy of Science Direct

Through the work, Williams claims that instructors often fail to recognize that students will differ in the amount of knowledge of the material since some may have been exposed to the science material before. In a similar way, expectations regarding what the class will be like will also differ among students. By considering the diversity of these student voices, class engagement can improve. 

According to the study, one of the most helpful strategies in this area is strategy No. 4: use “exam” questions outside of exams. With this strategy, an instructor can plan an activity to facilitate small-group discussions about recycled multiple-choice exam questions that are at a reasonable difficulty level. According to Williams, this has shown to benefit both students and instructors alike. Instructors will be able to provide a summary of the topic discussed in class that day, allowing them to gauge how students interpret the questions and material. On the other hand, students will have the opportunity to assess their level of preparation for the science course, while remaining engaged with the material and creating a sense of community with their peers. 

As collaborative discussions have shown to facilitate active learning in a science classroom, Williams also highlights the importance of individual study strategies that students implement into their daily academic routine. 

“A Survey of Study Skills of First-year University Students: The Relationships of Strategy to Gender, Ethnicity and Course Type,” another paper of Williams, considers the varying success students who are pursuing a STEM major have in college. Many students who are women, first-generation or disadvantaged can be considered more affected by the transition into college when their performance in high school STEM courses fails to compare to that of college STEM courses. 

Researchers have often associated this academic performance to study skills that are not commonly used by students from underrepresented groups. For example, Williams’ survey found that self-testing and rereading strategies had both shown an increase in better grades. However, these strategies had not been used as much by underrepresented students in comparison to non-underrepresented students. Flashcards had shown the opposite outcome, resulting in lower grades along with increased use among underrepresented students. This demonstrated that many students whose backgrounds did not expose them to the rigor of college courses were not used to utilizing study strategies that were linked to better performance. 

To read more about Williams’ research in STEM education, student performance and how to succeed in STEM, visit UCI’s School of Biological Sciences website.

Korintia Espinoza is a STEM Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at