Personality Traits and Domain Knowledge Predict Success in STEM Programs, Study Finds

September 27th, 2013 No Comments Other

Prediction of academic success at tertiary institutions is an enduring issue for educational psychology. According to new research from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Rice University, prediction of student graduation from STEM programs may be significantly improved by including in the college admission process consideration of AP exam performance and a small set of personality traits, along with traditional indicators of student abilities and high school grades.

The study tracked individual trait measures (such as personality, self-concept, and motivation) of 589 undergraduate students at the Georgia Institute of Technology from 2000 to 2008. The selected students were enrolled in Psychology 1000, a one-credit elective course for freshmen undergraduate students. Questionnaires assessing these trait measures were distributed to approximately 1,100 of the 1,196 students enrolled in the course in fall 2000, and 589 students completed the survey.

The research revealed that, on average, males and females who changed their college major from a field in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) identified different reasons for doing so. Women who changed from a STEM major tended to have lower “self-concepts” in math and science — they were less likely to view themselves in these fields. Men tended to have lower levels of orientation toward “mastery and organization.”

“The findings from our study indicated that men who left the STEM majors tended to have much lower scores on self-reported Mastery/Organizational traits and skills than those who remained as STEM majors,” Ackerman told InformED in a recent interview. “The constituent traits in this constellation of variables included Desire to Learn, Mastery Orientation, Conscientiousness, and skills such as Time and Study management and academic Organizational skills.”

Because these were self-reported traits and skills, Ackerman says one interpretation is that the men who left the STEM areas tended to have lower engagement and a lower positive orientation toward academically rigorous work, over and above considerations of whether they had the ability to persevere in the major. 

“One could think of this as a poor ‘person-environment fit’—such that they tended to feel more comfortable in an academic program that was perhaps less demanding on things like math and science (e.g. by transferring to a major in ‘management’ which is the major most of the STEM to non-STEM transfers were made).”

In addition to personality traits, domain knowledge has been identified as a significant factor in predicting STEM major success.

“Given that over half of the AP exams are completed prior to the students’ senior year of high school, their actual exam scores could be part of the formal selection process and assist in identifying students most likely to graduate from college/university,” Ackerman said, adding that he hoped university admissions officers would consider taking into account what applicants “know” in addition to their grades and standardized test scores.

The researchers hope their findings will help students, counselors, and other stake-holders better match high school elective options to student interests and personal characteristics.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

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