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Persisters, Switchers, and Leavers, Oh My!

So… This girl has been busy busy busy lately!  Quick update before I jump in to my latest article reading

  1. OVERJOYED!  –  I have been offered (and have accepted) a professorship with the University of Tennessee at Martin and I am soooo excited to get started!  I have been searching for some time for the right fit and I finally found it!  The faculty members have been so inviting and supportive, the students are so ready to jump into some of this Ammermanian madness, and I LOVE Tennessee!

  2. HEARTBROKEN – Accepting this new position means leaving my musicians at Annandale.  And while I am insanely psyched to get started with my new position, leaving my students is one of the hardest things…

  3. RESEARCH INTEREST SHIFT (just a little) – You know, I have always been fascinated by recruiting and retention (particularly of students from diverse and under-served communities). Now that I am getting ready to teach college, I find myself especially interested in the relationship between the start of major coursework for undergrads and persistence in a program.  So… I am back to reading articles and will do my best to post somewhat regularly about what I find from reading these articles ❤  Enjoy!

So, the first article that I came across that caught my eye was actually about persistence within STEM programs.  This particular study categorized students into three categories:

  1. Persisters – Students who continued beyond the first semester in a chemistry major

  2. Switchers – Students who continued in an undergrad program but switched from the chemistry major

  3. Leavers – Students who left the institution all together

The basic hypothesis was that the following factors influenced a student’s decision regarding persistence within the chemistry major:

  1. Perception of Ability

  2. Perception of Performance

  3. Motivation

  4. Identity – I was most interested in this component and thought for SURE that this would be a significant variable, but I was not completely convinced by the end

  5. Self-Worth

This study basically found the following about students who left the chemistry major:

  1. Leavers and Switchers reported lower grades

  2. They felt discouraged about the program

  3. Science played a less central role in their identity

  4. This is not surprising at all to me, it is one of the reasons I feel so strongly about having students enrolled in major coursework from the very beginning (this is probably the case already with this scenario, but in Music Ed, it is often not the case)

  5. They had concerns about their own academic ability

  6. Why is this?  What can we do to improve students’ self-concept and self-contingencies?

Additional relevant pieces of info:

  1. 71% of all participants left the chemistry major after just the first semester

  2. 29% of those switched majors

  3. A WHOPPING 43% left school together… THIS is alarming…

  4. Switchers started with a higher sense of self-doubt and performance avoidance (the desire to avoid failures)

  5. Leavers had a higher self-contingency

  6. Self-Contingency is basically the internal AND external self-esteem.

  7. For example, a student with self-contingency will have self-esteem differences based upon grades or others’ opinions of the self.

  8. Self-Contingency as it relates to competition is a significant predictor of all three categories: persisters, switchers, and leavers.

  9. Switchers had the highest High School GPA – SOOOO INTERESTING!

  10. There was NO difference in the following:

  11. SAT Scores

  12. AP and IB Classes from High School

  13. Persisters received no grades under 70% in STEM classes

So, my takeaway from all of this information…

A. Knowing that the vast majority of students left after the first semester is an indicator of a huge problem.  And not that I have the perfect solution, but it would seem that perhaps admissions considerations may have to adjust somewhat.  Instead of looking at studentSAT scores and experience with AP or IB classes, perhaps we need to be considering how strongly one identifies with the actual major.  (It is interesting to note that of the switchers, many of them did switch out of the chemistry major but to a related field, still within the Sciences).

B. I also find it so interesting that self-contingency was actually HIGHER for LEAVERS!  This means that students who gave more worth to grades and those around them were more likely to leave.  I think that this is something that really needs further exploration.  But I still have so many more questions…

  1. How many of the students lived on campus?

  2. How many of the students lived with another Chemistry major or STEM colleague?

  3. When did the Chemistry classes start?  Were student immediately enrolled in Chemistry?  Or were they mostly gen-eds?

Either way, some very interesting things here and I am excited to continue to explore this vein of research!


Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., & Fautch, J. M. (2015). Who Leaves, Who Stays? Psychological Predictgyors of Undergraduate Chemistry Students? Persistence. Journal of Chemical Education, 92(3), 408–414.

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