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Representation in Education: Using Data to Understand Our Students

How important is representation in education? Dr. Catherine Quinlan, associate professor of science education at Howard University and collaborator on LabXchange's Data Science–Driven Science Education Project, shares findings from her research on diversity and its effect on students' persistence in STEM education.


After a brief stint at YouTube university, someone finally said that you could not easily create overlapping histograms with two data sets using Excel, so I decided to settle for as many ways of creating bar graphs from every angle and direction—upwards, sideways, one on top of the other. My goal was to reimagine some of my already published data, to tease out ideas on representation, which is the crux of my research.

Indicators of Persistence in STEM

When I initially created and published my instrument to measure self-efficacy indicators of persistence in a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) population, I began with questions that I believed were important based on the literature, my own personal experiences and those of our students, and feedback from other professors at an HBCU. Even though I went in with an open mind, I was still somewhat surprised when some of my assumptions and perspectives were not supported by the statistical analyses. While some questions might not have been good predictors for the self-efficacy factors, taken in isolation, they can tell a different story. Some of these stand-alone ideas are worth exploring as they might help us to better understand our Black student population and possibly other students of color.

In today’s society, we are asked to think about learning holistically. My curiosity about students’ perspectives of the financial versus emotional cost of being a scientist attends to some additional factors that might impact on students’ commitment to STEM. I posed the following:

  1. The financial cost of being a scientist is too much compared with what I will get out of it.
  2. The emotional cost of being a scientist is too much compared with what I will get out of it.

Even though these questions did not make it into the finalized instrument, I wondered what we could learn by looking at the distributions of students’ responses. The approximately 163 participants were enrolled in an introductory biology course which was overrepresented by biology majors but also included other STEM majors, allied heath majors, and non-STEM majors at an HBCU. The data was also overly represented by students who identified as female and first year students.

Bar graph showing the number of students who strongly agreed, agreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statement "The emotional cost of being a scientist is too much compared with what I will get out of it" and "The financial cost of becoming a scientist is too much compared with what I will get out of it." Most students selected "neither agree nor disagree" for both statements, however a similar number of students selected "disagree" for the second statement ("financial cost") as well.

You might have assumed correctly that more students agreed that the emotional cost of being a scientist was too much compared to what they would get out of being a scientist. Perhaps this understanding might influence the importance you place on students’ emotional investment in your class content. How do you know when your students are emotionally invested in your class? To what extent is this important to you? What do you do to attend to students’ emotional investment in your class?

So, Does Representation Matter—and to Whom?

As a society, we tackle the issue of representation from different angles, but more popular is highlighting a scientist that reflects the racial/ethnic background of our students. The research shows mixed results when it comes to representation by mentors or teachers. Here I share with you the perspectives of our HBCU students. The question—It is important to me that my mentor or teacher is from a similar ethnic and racial background as I am—did not make it into the final questionnaire or into the final paper as an important indicator of self-efficacy for this population. The distribution, however, sheds light on the importance of representation. Asking students about their preference for matched mentor was important when considering that over 80% of our teachers are White and only about 7% or so are Black.

A bar graph showing the number of students who agreed with the statement "It is important o me that my mentor or teacher is from a similar ethnic and racial background as I am." Most students selected "agree" or "strongly agree."

You might think of this question differently depending on how you identify. If you are among those teachers who are well represented in science by race/ethnicity, culture, gender, and/or beliefs, you may or may not consider representation as important. Likewise, you may or may not fully understand on an emotional level why this is important to some. It is not farfetched to believe that those whose needs are well met might not consider representation important at all. It is even possible that we might only be alerted to this importance through a negative experience, or repeated negative or disconnecting experiences. Then we begin to question our belongingness or fit.

I have the luxury of having some of these conversations with our HBCU students, some of whom have interned in predominantly White institutions. One conversation is worth noting, which this student gave me permission to share. She participated in a prestigious internship and was approached by one of her peers who asked, on different occasions, whether or not she was accepted through a special HBCU program. She replied that she went through the same application process. However, when she was approached again, she said she began to doubt herself and to doubt her accomplishments.

The importance and benefits of representation for all must be underscored. A lack of representation can send the wrong message and become correlated with a lack of competence, especially to those unable to see societal barriers, and especially for those unable to see how individual barriers and individual responses become accumulative and systemic, and a societal problem. As history has shown, as Black people, we work hard and accomplish in spite of and not necessarily because of our lived realities—whatever these may be. The latter “because of” might lead to increased trust, but the former “in spite of” reminds us that we are alone. The former leaves us tired and others surprised and confused when we thrive, and the latter builds trusting, peaceful, and happy relationships within our society. I’ve come to understand that some of our students welcome our HBCU classrooms because they get reprieve from negative but sometimes subtle interactions they’ve experienced in K-12. They can accomplish alongside those who believe in them, and who expect them to achieve great things.

Impact of Others Like Yourself or Not Like Yourself

It was interesting to see how students perceived the impact of others like themselves on their feelings about their own capability. I posed two statements: 1. I know I can do well when I see people like me able to do something challenging; 2. I doubt my own ability to do well in science when others like me have difficulty. These are included in the paper but might not have made it into the final questionnaire as significant indicators for persistence. The distributions are still worth exploring.

A bar graph showing the number of students who responded to the statements "I know I can do well when I see people like me able to do something challenging" and "I doubt my ow ability to do well in science when others like me have difficulty." Most students agreed or strongly agreed with the first statement. The results were more mixed for the second statement, although "disagree" was still the most-selected answer.

The results show that for these first-year students enrolled in this introductory biology course with both STEM and non-STEM majors, Black students' success is more influenced by seeing others like themselves do something challenging than by the difficulty others like themselves have. Are you surprised by these results, and given what you know about your students, how do you think they might compare? Additional understandings can be captured in discussions with your students.

Engagement Discussion:

Use these questions and graphs as an opportunity to get to know and understand your students. As a matter of fact, pointing specifically to this data sample and graphs could generate interest from your students of similar background and provide them with an opportunity to understand themselves better or not feel alone in their perceptions. Ask them which questions they agree with and why, and which they are surprised by.

Written by
Catherine Quinlan
Associate Professor of Science Education, Howard University

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