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Creating a Psychological Profile of Successful First-Year Engineering Students

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

The Best of First-Year Programs Division

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Danielle D. Gagne Alfred University

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Dr. Gagne is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Alfred University. Although her formal training is in discourse processing, her professional interests in learning and cognitive theory have provided opportunities to serve as a consultant for classroom and program assessment across disciplines. In 2010 she served as Project Faculty for a U.S. Department of Education grant for Preparing Leaders in the Education and Training of the Next Generation of School Psychology Practitioners, and in 2012 served as an evaluator for an NSF grant on classroom-flipping in Calculus courses. Her teaching and research interests intersect with gerontology, with specific focus on ageism.

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Bethany C. Johnson Alfred University

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Dr. Beth Johnson is an assistant professor of psychology at Alfred University.

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Steven M. Pilgrim Alfred University

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After six years in R&D, Dr. Pilgrim joined the NY State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1993. He is now: Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Clinical Professor of Science Education, and a Certified HS Educator in Chemistry. He serves as an ABET Evaluator with professional interests in STEM outreach, engineering education, science education, and ferroelectric materials.

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This complete evidence-based practice paper describes work creating a profile of engineering students most likely continue in an engineering program from first to second year. Although many higher education institutions rely on standardized measures for admission to engineering programs, recent research suggests that understanding students’ various personal qualities, beyond their prior education in STEM courses and general intelligence, should be considered when trying to predict their success in undergraduate engineering programs. Many students arrive on campus with some expectation of the program content, but may be ill-prepared for other aspects of collegiate life, including the ability to self-initiate and self-regulate effective learning skills, to form relationships with peers, and to meet college-level expectations. First-year students may also be academically unprepared to negotiate increased course demands. Often, these myriad inadequacies result in attrition of first year students, as they transfer out of the engineering program to another line of study at the same institution, transfer to another school, or withdraw from college entirely. Our ongoing research focuses on identifying students’ psychological characteristics and lifestyle factors that contribute to successful retention of engineering students, defined here as those who return to an engineering program the following academic year. Cognitive and social psychology provided the theoretical foundation for this study. Based on the principles of self-regulated learning theory, which describes the combination of tactics such as metacognition, self-reflection, regulation of motivation, and evaluation of one’s skills and ability as necessary to academic success, we employed three different existing, validated scales; the Need for Cognition Scale (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982), the Academic Attributional Style Questionnaire (Higgins & MacGregor, 2005), and the Revised Academic Locus of Control Scale for College Students (Curtis & Trice, 2013). The results reported here are based on the analysis of data from the first two cohorts, encompassing students who matriculated in Fall 2014 and Fall 2015. First-year engineering students (N=244: Cohort 1 n=129, Cohort 2 n=115) completed these surveys online and also supplied demographic information and details about their co-curricular responsibilities and extra-curricular commitments. The surveys were assigned as homework modules in their required first-year seminar, and students earned points toward their pass/fail grade for completing the assignment. Across both cohorts, 16% of the sample discontinued enrollment at the university, 7% changed to a different college within the university, and 78% of the sample returned to engineering for their second year. Although reasons for attending a particular engineering program seem to fall into obvious categories (e.g., financial aid offered; reputation of the institution; campus size, location, and/or “atmosphere;” passion for the content area), reasons for departure are less clear. Across both cohorts, 69% of the students categorized as experiencing academic difficulty (e.g., probation or suspension) left the university or transferred to a major outside of engineering; however, 13% of those who were in good standing also left engineering.

We will describe the patterns of behavior and habits of thought we found across both cohorts, including the impact of various co- and extra-curricular factors that do and do not predict whether a student will return for their second year. Our goals are to create a profile of a successful engineering student and identify key contributors to student retention. Using such profiles, faculty and support staff could identify students likely to need additional attention and resources before they fail to proceed, and change those students’ trajectories. This unusual collaboration across disciplines could substantially increase understanding of actions needed to educate and retain an increasingly diverse population of engineering students.

Gagne, D. D., & Johnson, B. C., & Pilgrim, S. M. (2017, June), Creating a Psychological Profile of Successful First-Year Engineering Students Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28080

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2017 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015