In this research-based paper, we explore the relationships among Rice University STEM students’ high school preparation, psychological characteristics, and career aspirations. Although greater high school preparation in STEM coursework predicts higher STEM retention and performance in college, objective academic preparation and college performance do not fully explain STEM retention decisions, and the students who leave STEM are often not the lowest-performing students. Certain psychosocial experiences may also influence students’ STEM decisions.
We explored the predictive validity of 1) a STEM diagnostic exam as an objective measure of high school science and math preparation and 2) self-efficacy as a psychological measure on long-term (three years later) STEM career aspirations and STEM identity of underprepared Rice STEM students. University administrators use diagnostic exam scores (along with other evidence of high school underpreparation) to identify students who might benefit from additional support.
Using linear regression to explore the link between diagnostic exam scores and self-efficacy, exam scores predicted self-efficacy a semester after students’ first semester in college; exam scores were also marginally correlated with self-efficacy three years later. Early STEM career aspirations predicted later career aspirations, accounting for 21.3% of the variance of career outcome expectations three years later (β=.462, p=.006). Scores on the math diagnostic exam accounted for an additional 10.1% of the variance in students’ three-year STEM career aspirations (p=.041). Self-efficacy after students’ first semester did not predict future STEM aspirations. Early STEM identity explained 28.8% of the variance in three-year STEM identity (p=.001). Math diagnostic exam scores accounted for only marginal incremental variance after STEM identity, and self-efficacy after students’ first semester did not predict three-year STEM aspirations.
Overall, we found that the diagnostic exam provided incremental predictive validity in STEM career aspirations after students’ sixth semester of college, indicating that early STEM preparation has long-lasting ramifications for students’ STEM career intentions. Our next steps include examining whether students’ diagnostic exam scores predict STEM graduation rates and final GPAs for science and math versus engineering majors.
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