Study: Worrying About Grades Keeps Students Away from STEM

A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has some interesting insight into why efforts to increase the number of students pursuing science, technology engineering and mathematics majors in college have so far fallen short of expectations. Previously, much blame was placed on K-12 curricula that didn’t provide enough preparation — but [...]

A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has some interesting insight into why efforts to increase the number of students pursuing science, technology engineering and mathematics majors in college have so far fallen short of expectations. Previously, much blame was placed on K-12 curricula that didn’t provide enough preparation — but the issue could be that students simply don’t realize how challenging STEM majors can be. When they do, they drop out, Khadeeja Safdar of The Wall Street Journal reports.

That was the conclusion of Ralph and Todd R. Stinebrickner, of Berea College and University of Western Ontario, respectively. In 2000 and 2001, the Stinebrickners interviewed more than 650 students about to enroll in Kentucky’s Berea College and asked them to assess the relative difficulty of 12 college majors. Students were asked to estimate how difficult completing the graduation requirements would be, what grade point average they could expect and how much work they’d need to do on a daily basis in order to keep up with their studies.

The researchers found that while math and science majors drew the most interest initially, not many students finished with degrees in those subjects. More students dropped out of math and science majors and fewer students switched into them than any other area of study, including professional programs, social sciences, humanities and business.

The survey results also showed that the students who dropped out didn’t do so because they discovered an unexpected amount of the work. In fact, students who expressed interest initially anticipated more work than other majors.

According to the study, the issue appeared to be grades. After taking introductory science and math courses required in Berea, students felt that they could achieve higher GPAs by pursuing a humanities major instead. Simply speaking, it just seemed easier to graduate with honors by pursuing a softer degree.

The question is “Why?”

Max Nisen of Business Insider has an interesting insight: grade inflation.

Not everyone is good at science or well enough prepared when they enter college, and maybe some people who switch, should. But that first C is a shock to the system, especially compared with the As that you see from classmates majoring in the humanities. People worry about their ability to be competitive for jobs or graduate schools and end up switching early on in their college careers.
On average, humanities majors have GPAs 0.4 points higher than those who study science on a 4.0 scale.

Since making science courses easier is hardly an option, eliminating what is essentially an opportunity cost paid by STEM students by making humanities harder could go some way towards encouraging more of them to stick with STEM for the long haul.

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