Promoting persistence in STEM Learning Community: What interview data from Talking about Leaving Revisited tell us

This year, a group of faculty members (and one soon-to-be faculty member) from multiple departments at Vanderbilt are joining together to consider how to promote persistence in STEM at Vanderbilt. We plan to use Talking about Leaving Revisited (TALR) as a guiding text, and we have identified several goals:

  • Develop a more holistic and research-based understanding of the reasons that students leave STEM
    • Tease out the factors that are common across STEM as well as those that are more discipline-specific
  • Develop a common vocabulary for talking about the educational practices that impact student success
  • Identify steps we can implement in our own classes to promote a better student experience
  • Identify non-classroom experiences that can influence students’ educational experience (e.g., undergraduate research, access to timely support) and related policy recommendations

In our third meeting, we focused on reviewing Chapter 3 in TALR to get a sense of what the interview data revealed about why students who intend to major in STEM disciplines opt not to do so.  

We noted that students who switch out of STEM majors and those who persist cite the same constellation of issues, reinforcing our understanding that we need to focus on fixing the system rather than the students. Issues that we think we can and should address are the discouragement/loss of confidence due to low grades in early courses that students describe; their rejection of STEM careers and associated lifestyles; and the “poor quality” of STEM teaching.

I put “poor quality” in quotes because after having read 114 pages in the book, I am surprised and disappointed that I still have no description of what students in the TALR study identify as poor quality teaching—in spite of the fact that it is cited at the top of what the authors identify as significant concerns in Figure 3.2.

We are also very concerned about students’ identification of a peer-generated competitive, unsupportive culture as inhibiting their progress as well as their (probably related) perception that early courses are intended as weed-out courses, and feel that we can and should try to impact these factors.

One participant noted that while students in general tended to identify a similar constellation of issues, students of color cited more reasons for leaving than did white students, suggesting that the cognitive and emotional load associated with staying in a STEM major is likely to be higher for students of color.

We also returned to an earlier discussion, noting that students have to adjust to college very quickly, and may not realize they need help (or be comfortable or knowledgeable about finding it) before the first big exams three weeks into their first semester. We like the idea of 1) having panels that feature faculty and senior undergraduates talking about experiences of failure about three weeks into the semester and 2) incorporating pre-testing into introductory courses as a way to help students recognize the learning that they will (need to) do in the course.

We also talked about the theme of rejecting STEM careers and lifestyles that emerged from the interview data. We are interested in why this happens: does it have to do with how we talk about our science and our jobs? Does it arise from the relatively narrow slice of STEM-related careers that students see as undergraduates? We speculate that it could be helpful to share alternate career paths that are available to STEM majors, In addition, Shane Hutson shared the STEP-UP careers in physics lesson, which has students identify areas of interest that they want to have as part of their future careers and then matches students interest to potential careers. Students then create their own career profile, which seems to be one of the most effective parts of the lesson.

Although our readings and our discussions have led us to think that there are some things we know, and some steps we think would be helpful to take (including those listed here and in the posts from meetings 1 and 2), there are still pieces of the puzzle that we want to flesh out. We want to know more about “poor STEM teaching,” about the characteristics of weed-out courses (which we don’t perceive that we have), and about what helps students thrive. At our next meeting, we’re therefore bringing different pieces together: I am going to report on Chapter 6: Student responses to problematic STEM teaching methods; Richard Haglund is going to summarize They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different; Thomas Clements is going to give us a synopsis of Chapter 7: Weed-out classes and their consequences; and the other participants are going to collectively summarize Chapter 9: The struggle to belong and thrive. While this may be too much information to process in a single meeting, we think it will help fill in some of the gaps in our understanding to allow us to take useful steps going forward.

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