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Success and Retention in STEM Students
By John Freeman Posted:August 24, 2014 0 Comments
In this new series at, we will be analyzing current peer-reviewed literature that relates to STEM schools and STEM education. With increasingly hectic schedules, it can be difficult for educators and parents to stay abreast of the latest studies. To that end, we have started a series to boil down that basic facts of noteworthy reports to tell you what it is and why it matters to you.

The Study

Tony Perez, Jennifer G. Cromley, and Avi Kaplan published "The Role of Identity Development, Values, and Costs in College STEM Retention" in the August 2013 edition of the Journal of Educational Psychology. The study evaluated whether college students perceptions about their own identity and their abilities had an effect on their perceived happiness with a STEM major and whether or not they projected to stay in the field and finish their degrees.

This study examined 363 undergraduate students in a Chemistry 2 lab course that were pursuing STEM majors at a large, urban university. They were majority female (58%) and freshman (62%). The racial breakdown was 45% Caucasian, 24% Asian, 11% African American, 10% Indian Subcontinent, 3% Middle Eastern, 1% Hispanic/Latino, 2% other, and 5% mixed races. The students were primarily broken down into two motivation groups: "achieved" individuals who had explored career and academic options on their own and had decided to pursue the field independently and "foreclosed" individuals who had done little exploration but had made their choices under the influence of strong individuals in their lives (typically parents).

Students were examined at five times during the semester, and they were asked about why they had chosen a STEM major, what sort of costs they perceived involved (hard work, stress, lost opportunities, etc.), how competent they felt with the subject matter, and whether or not they expected to stay in the STEM major.

The study found that achieved students had a much higher instance of perceiving the costs of a STEM degree to be low, they were more likely to view the work involved in a STEM degree as being worth the effort, they had a higher view of their own competence in the field (which translated into higher grades), and they were less likely to consider leaving the STEM field for another major. Foreclosed students, on the other hand, were much more cognizant of costs. They perceived their STEM pursuits to have a higher opportunity cost, a higher likelihood to impede friendships, and a higher likelihood of squeezing out other valued activities. They also viewed their competence as lower and the stress involved in these classes to be higher. They were also more likely to consider switching from a STEM program to a non-STEM program than other students.

Implications for You

A lot of effort is currently being put into STEM education at all levels of K-12 and college education. The goal of much of this is to expose students to STEM from an early age and to keep them interested in the subjects while they are in the STEM pipeline. But, a purely logic-driven approach that shows students the value of STEM education in terms of job availability and money to be made may ultimately prove to be unsuccessful. Despite the importance of STEM education and the potential for lucrative careers in these fields, studies have shown that up to 40% of freshman STEM majors will transfer into other departments. The most common reason that students have provided for this change of heart is a loss in interest in STEM subjects.

This study indicates that students cannot be forced into a love of STEM education. Their identity as a future scientist, engineer, or STEM professional can be guided by teachers and parents, but it cannot be forced on individual students. These guided individuals are more likely to fall into the foreclosed student group that makes them more prone to view their STEM education fatalistically. When students feel like they do not have a choice, it makes them feel less competent and it makes them more likely to abandon STEM when the perceived costs begin to feel too great. In short, parents and influencers may be able to get students to start a STEM degree, but it remains unlikely that they will be able to keep them in the pipeline all the way to graduation.

Instead, students should be encouraged to explore STEM education. This exploration can lead students to develop a self-identity that incorporates STEM as part of who they are. As students identify more with the subject on a personal level, they are more likely to become resilient achievers that will stay in the STEM pipeline. This is a fantastic argument for varied involvement with hands-on STEM activities that is often not made when arguing for STEM education. While it has long been acknowledged that hands-on activities like experiments, coding, field trips, in-class demonstrations, and other non-lecture based approaches to learning can pique student interest, these explorations have a further benefit: they make students want to be part of the STEM world. By increasing students early identification with STEM, they are more likely to perceive themselves as competent and the work involved in mastering STEM subjects to be worthwhile. In short, it means that the "fun" parts of class could arguably be the most important part in shaping a student's future STEM success.

This study proves once again the importance of early intervention in a student's STEM education. However, it also shows that STEM cannot be forced on a student; rather, students need to be wooed by STEM and make the decision on their own for the greatest success. To paraphrase Cheap Trick, STEM needs students to need it.