Recent shifts in the global economy has placed a new national focus on the STEM–Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics–fields. However, we are simultaneously facing a crisis of STEM attrition as large swaths of students—48% of bachelor’s candidates and 69% of associate’s candidates—entering STEM majors in higher education drop out without completing their degree or switch to a different major. This trend of student flight has policymakers worried that a lack of STEM-educated talent will negatively impact our ability to compete in the global marketplace.
While some aspects of STEM attrition are unavoidable, there are several strategies based in edtech solutions that could be implemented to prevent a significant portion of students from leaving these fields, such as closing knowledge gaps, tracking student engagement, and improving math readiness.
Closing Knowledge Gaps
One of the issues contributing the STEM attrition is the variety of educational backgrounds and their impact upon student performance. Students who enter STEM fields with less background knowledge than their peers are at a disadvantage in the classroom and are more likely to drop out of a difficult course, but digital solutions like WebAssign help to close the knowledge gaps between students of disparate educational backgrounds.
With access to course content and additional learning and review activities like the Math Readiness Boot Camps, WebAssign allows struggling students to catch up to their peers and be prepared when they enter the classroom.
Lack of student engagement is another major factor contributing to STEM attrition. Many intro-level STEM courses are set up to weed out students rather than engage them in the often difficult material, but rather than just culling those who lack commitment, this practice also may discourage students who are engaged in the course but having difficulty with the material.
Moreover, these intro classes are often huge, so it’s difficult if not impossible for an instructor to determine who’s having trouble, and who’s just checked out. In this case, student analytics through Class Insights in WebAssign allow instructors to track performance by showing them who is completing assignments and learning activities.
By tracking student performance, instructors are able to see where students are running into difficulties with the material and can make early interventions before the student becomes overwhelmed and drops out. These early interventions are critical, because those who drop out of STEM courses early on have a much higher tendency to drop out of the field entirely.
Lastly, one of the most pressing issues that often leads to STEM attrition is a lack of math readiness at the college level. Mathematics is the foundation for all of the STEM fields, and whether or not a student takes higher level math courses in their first year appears to have a direct correlation with their progression towards a STEM degree.
The NCES found that, among bachelor’s degree candidates, “30-40% of those who entered STEM fields in the first year but left college or switched majors took no mathematics at all in the first year, compared with 14% of those who persisted in STEM fields.” Many students enter college unprepared for advanced college-level mathematics, and rampant math anxiety or lack of readiness for the material could lead many to avoid math courses or drop out once they become overwhelmed by the material.
Enhanced instructor-student communication tools in platforms like WebAssign address math anxiety among students by allowing them to reach out directly to their instructor without leaving the assignment. For math-anxious students who might not otherwise ask for help due to a fear of public embarrassment, or for students who may have gaps in their math knowledge, this feature is a game-changer in helping them progress through difficult course concepts and achieve the credits needed for their degree.