Talking About Leaving, Revisited Talking About Leaving, Revisited Home


Peer-Reviewed Articles

Increasing Persistence of College Students in STEM
Mark J. Graham, Jennifer Frederick, Angela Byars-Winston, Anne-Barrie Hunter, and Jo Handelsman
Science, 341 (2013), 1455-1456. Full text

Conference Papers, Presentations, and Posters

Talking About Leaving, Revisited: Exploring the Contribution of Teaching in Undergraduate Persistence in the Science
Mark Connolly, Julia Savoy, Amanda Ward, Anh Dang, Lara Rubinyi, You-Geon Lee, Ross Benbow, Erika Vivyan, Anne-Barrie Hunter, Elaine Seymour, Tim Weston, Heather Thiry, Raquel Harper, Dana Holland, Joseph Ferrare, Julia Miller
April 2016

This study focuses on how undergraduate STEM learning experiences may have changed since the original Talking About Leaving Study completed in the late 1990s. PI Mark Connolly presented this research at a symposium titled “Envisioning the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education (EnFUSE): Research and Practice” in April of 2016, hosted by the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. More information about the symposium can be found here .


Finding One’s Place or Losing the Race? The Unequal Impacts of Switching Majors on College Degree Completion
Joseph Ferrare & You Geon Lee
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association
April 11, 2016

Little is known about how disciplinary pathways shape students’ patterns of degree attainment. The following paper addresses this gap in the literature by estimating the impact of switching majors on the likelihood of bachelor’s degree completion for the 2004-2009 cohort of undergraduate students in the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. The results show that students who changed majors across disciplinary groups were less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years than those who stayed in their initially declared major. However, social class advantages allowed some students to offset these risks—especially those who switched out of STEM majors. These findings point to a context through which social inequality is reproduced within the higher education system. The authors conclude by considering the theoretical implications of these findings as well as practical considerations for academic advising and higher education policy aimed at STEM recruitment.

Teaching and Learning "Brogrammers": Gender and Belonging in Computer Science Gateway Courses
Ross J. Benbow & Erika Vivyan
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association
April 11, 2016

Building from findings that computer science continues to have the highest attrition rates proportionally for women within postsecondary science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) disciplines, this paper uses an in-depth qualitative case study analysis of two gateway computer science courses in two research universities to investigate the relationship between locally-situated systems of educational practice and meaning and women’s persistence decisions. While previous studies have highlighted the connections between female attrition, self-efficacy, and computer experience, our findings also point to differences in local education fields that, from the perspective of participants, can begin to mediate such influences, including opportunities for collaboration, fuller access to instructors, and departmental and campus support systems that contribute to a more meaningful sense of belonging.

Presentation Slides

“I’d Always Been Good in the Sciences in High School”: The Role of College Transition in High-Achieving Undergraduate Students’ Decisions to Leave STEM Majors
Heather Thiry, Timothy J. Weston, Elaine Seymour, and Anne-Barrie Hunter
Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education: November 5-7, 2015

This mixed-methods study examines the college transition experiences of STEM majors who switched into non-STEM fields. Interviews and student transcripts demonstrate that most switchers struggled with the transition to college. These difficulties contributed to inequitable outcomes for first-generation and underrepresented minority students.

Is Classroom Culture Causing Leaks? How Mathematics Classroom Culture Affects Persistence Among Students of Color
Erika Vivyan
Congreso Interamericano de Psicología: July 12-16, 2015

In the United States, there remains and unfortunate underrepresentation of students of color earning degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.  These students may experience some level of cultural incongruity if the culture of their undergraduate classroom differs from or clashes with the culture that they were raised in.  The purpose of this poster is to describe the preliminary results of a qualitative investigation of classroom culture among undergraduate students of color. Full text.

Constructing Classroom Culture: A Framework for Analysis in the Context of Gateway Chemistry Courses
Joseph J. Ferrare, Ross J. Benbow, and Erika J. Vivyan
Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association: April 7, 2014

While researchers, educators, and policymakers call for transforming the culture of teaching and learning in undergraduate STEM courses, the literature lacks a compelling framework for investigating how instructors and students experience this culture in consequential ways. In this paper we build a field-theoretic framework for analyzing classroom culture within the context of a chemistry department at a large research university. Using a case study design, we conducted faculty interviews, student focus groups, and classroom observations in three gateway chemistry courses. Causal coding and instructional network analyses reveal the contradictory ways in which classroom culture is constructed and experienced by instructors and students. The results provide insights into the challenges and opportunities available to pedagogical innovation movements in higher education.

Working Papers

Gender and Belonging in Undergraduate Computer Science: A Comparative Case Study of Student Experience in Gateway Courses
Ross J. Benbow & Erika Vivyan
WCER WP 2016-2

Building from findings showing that undergraduate computer science continues to have the highest attrition rates proportionally for women within postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines—a phenomenon that defies basic social equity goals in a high status field—this paper seeks to better understand how student experiences in local higher educational settings can influence persistence decisions, particularly for women. Updating and extending work in computer science, our qualitative analysis interprets this wider problem, first, by applying a field theory of practice to more clearly theorize how varying social realms and positions influence student experiences and feelings of belonging. Second, we use an in-depth comparative case study of two introductory or “gateway” computer science courses in two universities to detail how classroom, departmental, institutional, and extra-institutional characteristics, including instructional practices and popular stereotypes, may shape action for students in specific higher educational contexts. While previous studies have highlighted the significance of broader computer science cultural values, self-efficacy beliefs, and experience with computers to women’s attrition, our findings provide a new theoretical lens to conceptualize the complex ways these and other factors connect in students’ daily lives—through preening male students or “brogrammers,” authentic or collaborative learning experiences, and uncomfortable social interactions due in part to women’s underrepresentation. Our findings also point to differences in local interactions and social positions that can begin to mediate these factors, including opportunities in class to ask questions, collaborate, and work on real-world problems; fuller access to instructors; and departmental and campus infrastructural supports that contribute to a greater sense of belonging in computer science.

Working paper can be found here.

Why Theories of Change Matter
Mark R. Connolly & Elaine Seymour
WCER WP 2015-02

In 2009, a pair of meetings launched an ambitious initiative to link communities engaged in improving STEM education with those engaged in global sustainability. The organizers of the initiative, “Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future” (details of which may be found at ), selected “critical advisors” to attend the meetings and guide discussion. These critical advisors, with expertise in relevant domains in higher education, such as professional development for faculty, curricula development, and policy practice, were asked to propose new or adapted theories of change that can accomplish a vision for higher education. In this paper, therefore, we review theories of change already used in efforts to improve quality and access in STEM education. We consider why some STEM reform efforts based on particular theories of change (whether implicit or stated) may be more or less successful than others. To this end, this paper argues that theories of change are powerful yet often unacknowledged guides for human action toward change. We first explain what a theory of change is. Then we present our findings from a preliminary study of theories of change inferred from a small samples of projects that the National Science Foundation solicited and subsequently funded to improve STEM education. We conclude by discussing the implications of unarticulated theories of change for the nation’s effort to improve STEM education. (NOTE: this WCER working paper is a version of a 2009 paper resulting from the Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future initiative.)

Should We Still be Talking About Leaving? A Comparative Examination of Social Inequality in Undergraduate Patterns of Switching Majors
Joseph J. Ferrare and You-Geon Lee
WCER WP 2014-05

Despite extensive efforts to increase the number of undergraduates majoring and persisting in science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) fields, there is surprisingly little understanding of recent patterns of switching from these majors to those in other fields of study. In addition, little is known about whether the racial, class, and gender dimensions to these patterns are unique to STEM fields or part of a process that affects majors in other fields across the higher education system. This working paper uses theoretically driven logistic regression models to examine these questions using the 2004/2009 cohort of undergraduate students from the Beginning Postsecondary Student Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/09). Results point to gender, race, and class-based disparities in patterns of switching majors that are unique to STEM fields, indicating that these disciplines are sites of ongoing struggles for proponents of equity in higher education and workforce development. Full Text.


Classroom Culture Clash: Exploring Classroom Culture and Persistence for Undergraduate Students in Introductory Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Courses at Two Public Universities
Erika Vivyan, 2016

The purpose of this study was to explore the classroom culture of introductory science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses at two public universities. The author describes the classroom culture of introductory STEM courses, delineates the factors that contribute to this culture, and examines the possible effects of classroom culture, cultural congruity, and cultural incongruity on student thinking about persistence and switching decisions. Specifically, this study was focused on exploring the effects that cultural congruity and incongruity in the classroom may have on student thinking about persistence and switching decisions among STEM majors, particularly for underrepresented students. Drawing upon field theory and using qualitative methodology, the author explores classroom culture through the analysis of faculty member individual interviews and student focus-group interviews from a sample of instructors and students at two public universities. Results indicate that students and instructors experience a weed-out and competitive classroom culture in introductory STEM courses. This culture is developed through student, instructor, class, department/institution, and social factors. Weed-out and competitive culture is viewed negatively by the sample as a whole, and contributes to a clash between the preferred and actual classroom culture for many students, particularly those currently underrepresented in STEM.

Position Papers

Using multiracial feminist theory to advance physics education research
Erika Vivyan, Wisconsin Center for Educational Research
January 2015

Educational researchers and policy makers regularly emphasize the need to encourage more students to pursue and persist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Although the representation of women is improving in some STEM fields, women in physics remain underrepresented in both undergraduate study and later careers. The purpose of this position paper is to discuss why researchers in physics education should continue to take up gender as an important part of the research agenda. Recent evidence indicates that women and women of color continue to be underrepresented in physics. Both past and present research suggests that women have been and continue to be underrepresented in the physical sciences and related careers. Women of color are even more underrepresented. These trends suggest that physics education is not gender neutral and that further change must occur in order for more women to find success in the field of physics. The idea that underrepresentation is inherently problematic is questioned. Women’s underrepresentation in the field of physics becomes a problem when (a) women are dissuaded, (b) women are driven out, and (c) women’s absence has negative effects on broader societal goals (e.g., equal opportunity, quality education, generation of knowledge, economic growth). Evidence exists to support the idea that these three conditions are present today; thus, women’s underrepresentation in physics is a problem that should be further interrogated. Therefore, researchers in physics education must continue to take up gender in our work, and multicultural feminist theory is one framework that should be employed to advance this aim. The author suggests that multicultural feminist theory can play a major role in the future of physics education research. The theory’s relationship with and advantages over other theories are discussed. Implications for physics education researchers are delineated. Support for this argument will be drawn from recent scholarship, including a 2014 literature review on underrepresented students in STEM. Sources will include published journal articles and dissertations about women and women of color in both physics and STEM. Full text.