First-generation Students’ Experiences of the Classroom Climate in a Redesigned Gateway Math Course: A Mixed Methods Case Study

Thumbnail Image

Persistent link to this item

View Statistics

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


First-generation Students’ Experiences of the Classroom Climate in a Redesigned Gateway Math Course: A Mixed Methods Case Study

Published Date




Thesis or Dissertation


In U.S. higher education, there are large disparities in student persistence rates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields along lines of race and ethnicity, gender, generation status, and class. Most underrepresented student attrition from STEM happens during the first year. Large, introductory science and math courses have been criticized for their unwelcoming and competitive classroom climates, and many scholars have argued that these courses act as gatekeepers for students with marginalized identities who wish to major in a STEM field. Many policymakers and researchers have called for these introductory courses to move away from a traditional lecturing model and towards active learning. In the STEM education literature, active learning is often presented as a panacea for closing disparities in STEM education outcomes. A critical approach to this topic challenges the assumption that the incorporation of active learning would transform these introductory courses into equitable spaces for students with marginalized identities. I conducted a mixed methods case study of a large, introductory math course taught at a public research university. The lead course instructor had redesigned the course in order to move toward an active learning model, with the goal of better preparing students to take subsequent math courses. Using the influence of pedagogy on the classroom climate as my conceptual framework, I sought to understand how first-generation students experienced the classroom climate of the redesigned class, how pedagogy influenced the climate, and how first-generation students’ experiences in the course affected their intentions to persist in STEM. My data collection methods were classroom observation, a student survey (N = 171), interviews with first-generation students (N = 13), interviews with the two course instructors, and a review of the syllabus and other course materials. I found that first-generation students described a classroom climate characterized by disengagement and collective confusion and frustration. Pedagogy negatively influenced the climate through a lack of structure, guidance, and communication at several levels; a test-based approach to assessment; and, in the case of one of the instructors, lecturing. The teaching assistants and one of the two instructors provided a high level of immediacy, which positively influenced the climate. Study participants varied in terms of whether the course had negatively or positively influenced their intention to persist in STEM, with about half of survey respondents saying the course had no impact. I approached the study of pedagogy through the lens of three teaching and learning paradigms: traditional pedagogy, active learning, and inclusive pedagogy. While the pedagogy utilized in the pre-calculus class mirrored the active learning paradigm in several ways, it also aligned with some aspects of traditional pedagogy and inclusive pedagogy. The dominant trend in introductory science and math course reform is to move from traditional pedagogy to active learning, and I was interested in exploring whether active learning is sufficient for creating an equitable classroom climate or if inclusive pedagogy is needed. Inclusive pedagogy calls for instructors to contextualize math within its social and cultural context and to tie course content to students’ experiences and goals. Conversely, the pre-calculus course presented math in a decontextualized manner. While inclusive pedagogues would argue that this decontextualization harms marginalized students, the class aligned with the first-generation interview participants’ expectations that a math course would avoid issues of identity, inequity, and discrimination. The study leads to several implications. A lack of structure was a main driver of the negative classroom climate. Under any pedagogical approach, a clear course structure should serve as a foundation on which to build a positive and inclusive classroom climate. Given that first-generation students benefited from the validation they received from the teaching assistants and one of the instructors, individuals who have a teaching role in introductory science and math courses should prioritize their position as someone who can provide validation to underrepresented students. I also discuss recommendations for institutional leaders and researchers who seek to bring about greater equity in science and math introductory courses and STEM education in general.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation.June 2019. Major: Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Advisors: Michael Stebleton, Rebecca Ropers. 1 computer file (PDF); xiii, 435 pages.

Related to




Series/Report Number

Funding information

Isbn identifier

Doi identifier

Previously Published Citation

Suggested citation

Diamond, Kate K.. (2019). First-generation Students’ Experiences of the Classroom Climate in a Redesigned Gateway Math Course: A Mixed Methods Case Study. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

Content distributed via the University Digital Conservancy may be subject to additional license and use restrictions applied by the depositor. By using these files, users agree to the Terms of Use. Materials in the UDC may contain content that is disturbing and/or harmful. For more information, please see our statement on harmful content in digital repositories.