Improving Undergraduate STEM Outcomes: The Spartan Persistence Project

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Matthew Diemer, Kristen Bieda, Susan Blanshan, Joseph Cesario, Melanie Cooper, M. Brent Donnellan, Julie Lindquist, Jason Moser, Barbara Schneider, Matthew Wawrzynski
Public concern with the cost, time to degree, and payoffs of college has become increasingly salient (Keller, 2012). These concerns are magnified among underrepresented students – first generation, poor and working class, African American, Native American, and Latino/a students – who are less likely to persist (Diemer & Li, 2012), demonstrate poorer academic achievement (Terenzini, Cabrera & Bernal, 2001), and tend to attain degrees from less selective 4-year institutions (Adelman, 1999). These same concerns are only exacerbated in STEM fields (Riegle-Crumb & King, 2010). To address these challenges and improve undergraduate retention and STEM performance, our team has developed a carefully customized set of brief social psychological interventions, the “Spartan Persistence Project.” Social psychological interventions – often delivered online, in as little as 45 minutes - have demonstrated powerful and durable effects on academic achievement (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel & Master, 2011), credit accrual (Yeager, Paunesko, Walton & Dweck, 2013), sense of belonging at one’s university (Yeager & Walton, 2011) and beliefs about academic ability (Yeager et al., 2013). These interventions are particularly impactful for underrepresented students (Yeager & Walton, 2011). The ‘Spartan Persistence’ intervention was designed and customized by an interdisciplinary group at Michigan State University (MSU), working in close collaboration with campus administration (e.g., Provost, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, Registrar’s Office), and in consultation with experts in this emerging field. Our randomized design includes a [i] mindset treatment – altering beliefs that achievement and ability are a fixed quantity that cannot be changed (a fixed mindset) to beliefs that achievement and intellectual ability can grow with effort and persistence (a growth mindset, see Dweck, 1999), [ii] belonging treatment – changing the attributions students make for developmentally normative challenges in the postsecondary transition, which are particularly important for underrepresented students (Yeager & Walton, 2011), [iii] purpose treatment – harnessing students’ commitments and motivations for college-going to propel them through adversity (Yeager et al., 2013), [iv] a STEM-specific expressive writing treatment, which allows students to ‘put their anxieties to paper’ in order to maximize performance in STEM courses (Bielock, 2011), and [v] an inert control condition. Our project team has successfully piloted these interventions (with a 97% response rate) and will scale up to impact all incoming students (N = 7500) in Fall 2014 – with a subset of these incoming students (N = 3500) enrolling in STEM courses also receiving the STEM expressive writing treatment - to change the mindset of a large student body and the broader campus culture. To evaluate the impact of our intervention over time, our project team will carefully analyze STEM and non-STEM coursetaking patterns and achievement. The ‘Spartan Persistence Project’ will address critical knowledge gaps. Firstly, the efficacy of social psychological interventions has been established, yet the how these interventions change the behavioral precursors to academic outcomes is a critical knowledge gap. This project will therefore closely examine student ID ‘card swipes’ (e.g., utilization of academic tutoring services, participation in campus activities) to identify the mediating mechanisms that lead to increased achievement and persistence, which holds merit. A second knowledge gap is whether social psychological interventions have differential effects for STEM vs. non-STEM outcomes – and whether new STEM-specific social psychological interventions may contribute added value for STEM undergraduates. By closely examining treatment dosage (i.e., mindset alone vs. mindset and STEM expressive writing treatments) as well as STEM coursetaking and achievement over time, we expect to generate new knowledge regarding the impact of these interventions for STEM undergraduates. This project is expected to: a) foster persistence and achievement among a large undergraduate population, b) reduce achievement and persistence gaps between majority group and underrepresented students, and c) improve STEM course performance, persistence, and course-taking patterns.

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