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Study: Improvements Needed in College Instruction to Retain Science Majors

Madison, Wisconsin - Of the three million college students who intend to major in a science-related field, fewer than half complete a science degree, and this gap between students’ aspiration and actual achievement is due in part to receiving inadequate classroom instruction from professors, according to a recent essay published in Science.


Dr. Angela Byars-Winston, one of the co-authors and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said the loss of students interested in science, technology, engineering and medical (STEM) related fields skews more toward racial and ethnic minorities and women. For example, only 18 percent of African-American men intending to major in STEM graduate in these areas.


Byars-Winston said professors and instructors in STEM are often unaware of evidence-based strategies for effective classroom instruction and research mentoring.  


“Many interventions designed to increase student persistence are limited in their impact due to several factors, including lack of an explicit theoretical base and failure to consider the underlying cognitive and social factors involved in the development of diverse undergraduate researchers,” she said. 


Yet, universities can produce more STEM graduates if professors implement what the authors call a “persistence framework” to get students more engaged in the classroom and not allow them to become discouraged by the difficulty of their courses.  This model focuses on four determinants of student persistence: “Confidence - belief in one’s own ability; motivation - intention to take action in pursuit of goals, learning - acquiring knowledge and skills, and professional identification - feeling like a scientist.”


In putting this model into use, the essay proposes use of  “learning communities” of students and faculty, more active learning experiences in the classroom, and getting students involved in meaningful research earlier when they are freshmen and sophomores.  


The authors noted some institutions have put the teaching methods used in the “persistence framework” model into place, and have been successful at retaining more African-American and underrepresented racial and minority groups.  For example, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County has retained 86 percent of its STEM majors between 1993 and 2006. 


The essay cites a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that claimed the U.S. workforce will have a shortage of one million people in STEM-related careers over the next decade. 


“Now is the time for higher education institutions to intentionally contribute to increasing student persistence in STEM majors,” Byars-Winston said. 


The essay was co-authored with colleagues from Yale University Dr. Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular biology, Dr. Mark Graham and Dr. Jennifer Frederick in the Center for Scientific Teaching; and Dr. Anne-Barrie Hunter of the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Date Published: 10/16/2013

News tag(s):  researcheducation

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Study: Improvements Needed in College Instruction to Retain Science Majors

Last updated: 12/21/2015
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