Persistence to a STEM Degree: Analyzing the Perceptions, Academic Experiences, and Study Behaviors of Freshmen Students to Guide Future Retention Strategies



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Background: In higher education it has been difficult not only to attract students to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors but also to address the challenges that prevent degree completion. Broadly, these challenges concern course experiences, support systems, and the self-regulation of learning. Feeling confident and engaged is important. This research brings into focus the experiences of freshmen in foundational STEM courses at the University of Houston who were taught by faculty involved in a multiyear project to improve retention. Purpose: The goals of this study were to analyze data from end-of-semester student surveys in order to (a) summarize how respondents described their experiences; (b) understand if students moved out of or into a STEM major in later semesters; (c) determine any differences between first-generation (FG) and continuing-generation (CG) respondents; (d) determine any differences between respondents who were participants in Recitation sessions and respondents who were not; and (e) investigate the relationship between course outcomes, study behaviors, and course experiences. Methods: The sample comprised first-time-in-college freshmen who completed either a foundational biology or physics course during spring or fall in 2016 or 2017. The research design was quasi-experimental and explored associations and relationships among variables using Pearson’s chi-square test of independence, independent samples t tests, and Pearson's correlation coefficient. Results: On average, respondents were more positive than negative about their course experiences and future career plans, as well as their capacity to engage in a variety of learning strategies. Regarding procrastination, they indicated meeting deadlines, but were less positive about avoiding procrastination habits. Next, while there was attrition out of STEM majors, some non-STEM majors switched into STEM. Concerning group differences, FG respondents had more responsibilities outside of college, for care of family and work. Recitation respondents had more responsibility for care of family. FG respondents reported less confidence and more procrastination tendencies. Recitation respondents reported less confidence, a greater tendency to study with others or ask for help, and a greater impact on the semester from procrastination. For all respondents, a better grade outcome—earning a grade of A or B instead of a C—was linked to positive study habits and lower procrastination tendencies. The same outcome was associated with greater confidence, passion for the course subject, and a sense of belonging in the class. These three aspects were also related to all positive study habits, in particular those that related to making connections among content and with one’s prior knowledge. Conclusion: Higher confidence levels and a sense of belonging in a learning community, which were shown to be different for some respondents, likely have important positive effects on students’ success and persistence in college. Study strategies may play a role. Study strategies encompass a broad range of actions—from time management and rote memorization to self-appraisal of learning and connecting content within a single course to one’s prior experiences. This latter aspect had the strongest associations with feelings of confidence, belonging, and passion for a subject. Therefore, it is this aspect of learning that seems the most strategic target of future program improvements.



STEM, college students, persistence to graduation, Improvement Science, student development theory