‘Grading Penalty’ Could Be to Blame for Number of Students Leaving STEM


The U.S. has long been worried about the number of students earning degrees in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. Our economy needs STEM workers and experts in order to stay internationally competitive. Researchers and educators commonly point to a “leaky pipeline,” a phrase used to describe the phenomenon of students “leaking” out of STEM departments and graduating with degrees in other fields.

A new study, published in Science Education, says this metaphor is misleading because it doesn’t consider undeclared or non-STEM students who later decide to enter STEM fields. The research found that the number of students switching into STEM majors is about the same as those switching out. The researchers also found evidence of a STEM “grading penalty” that could be contributing to the loss of STEM students. In other words, students may be giving up on STEM because they’re discouraged by low grades.

Professor Paul Attewell (The Graduate Center) and Dirk Witteveen of Oxford University, who earned his Ph.D. at The Graduate Center, co-authored the paper on STEM retention using data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The study found that leaks in the pipeline only refer to declared STEM majors who later switch subjects. But the authors say that benchmarks should focus on “STEM actives,” which include not only STEM majors but also any first-year student who takes several STEM classes. After all, students in the U.S. have the option of switching majors throughout college.

As for what causes students to decide against a STEM major, the analysis revealed that students who get lower grades in STEM classes than their other subjects during their first few semesters are less likely to graduate with a STEM degree.

This grading penalty shouldn’t be viewed as a way of weeding out poor students, the authors argue. A student could be at the top of their STEM class, but if they get better grades in a humanities course, that could lead them to switch majors.

Though correlation doesn’t equal causation, the authors see good reason to believe that this grading penalty could be one contributing cause of the loss of STEM graduates. Researchers who want to better understand this should investigate the way college STEM departments and professors assign grades, and also look into how students interpret those grades. A clearer idea of what encourages students to stick with STEM could help researchers and policymakers trying to increase the number of these graduates.

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