Persistence Patterns of Mathematics and Science Majors: A Profile of Highly Motivated Freshmen

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Despite an increasing demand for college graduates skilled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ("STEM") fields, a substantial number of students who choose these majors leave after taking their first-year "gateway" math and science coursework. Research has shown GPA to be a salient predictor of persistence in STEM majors: Students who earn high grades in gateway courses are more likely to continue, and those who earn low grades are more likely to leave. However, a small number of students defy that expectation: Despite a low gateway course GPA, they persist not just to the sophomore year but all the way ... continued below

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Gonzales, Erin E August 2016.

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  • Gonzales, Erin E

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Despite an increasing demand for college graduates skilled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ("STEM") fields, a substantial number of students who choose these majors leave after taking their first-year "gateway" math and science coursework. Research has shown GPA to be a salient predictor of persistence in STEM majors: Students who earn high grades in gateway courses are more likely to continue, and those who earn low grades are more likely to leave. However, a small number of students defy that expectation: Despite a low gateway course GPA, they persist not just to the sophomore year but all the way to graduation. The purpose of this study was to determine what other experiences, motivations, or attributes aside from academic performance influence these students to persist.

A qualitative approach was taken with the use of semi-structured interviews, which provided a means for analysis based on insights directly from students. An invitation was sent to a cohort of graduating math and science majors at a large public institution, and 10 eligible volunteers were chosen to participate. A thematic analysis was conducted to seek common themes in the students' interviews regarding their experiences in their gateway coursework, their feelings towards their chosen major, their beliefs about their academic proficiency, their motivations for continuing in their major, and other prominent characteristics they attributed to their persistence. Five themes were found: Ambition, dedication, achievement, culture shock, and resilience.

Of the five themes, four are attributes of the students themselves: Ambition, dedication, achievement, and resilience. The fifth, culture shock, is something that happened to them, although it does contain information about the students insofar as how they handled the situation. The end result was the identification of a specific group of students: High achievers majoring in math and science who are self-driven and independent, as well as confident in their abilities. A student fitting this profile is likely to persist in a math or science major despite any initial setbacks they may endure in the first year of coursework. In terms of application, institutions can implement initiatives for incoming freshmen to orient them to their STEM majors and guide them in understanding the attitudes, motivations, and practices that will help them succeed.

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  • August 2016

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  • Aug. 31, 2016, 10:41 p.m.

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  • Oct. 25, 2016, 10:04 a.m.

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Gonzales, Erin E. Persistence Patterns of Mathematics and Science Majors: A Profile of Highly Motivated Freshmen, dissertation, August 2016; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc862847/: accessed December 13, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .