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Self-Efficacy, Mathematical Mindset, and Self-Direction in First-Year Engineering Students

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Focus on Student Success I

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Matthew Cavalli Western Michigan University

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Dr. Cavalli is Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Associate Dean in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. His technical research interests include materials behavior and solid mechanics. His educational interests include distance education and first-year student success. He has previously served as the Chair of the Materials Division of ASEE.

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Anetra Grice Western Michigan University

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Anetra Grice is has served as the STEP Program Director for Western Michigan University's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences for since 2010.

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This Complete Research paper will describe the results of two years of incoming student surveys linking personality traits and engineering student performance.

Motivation: Prior academic success (e.g. high school GPA) tends to be a strong indicator of college success. However, there are students who struggle in high school that blossom in college and those who previously did well who end up leaving university without a degree. Various models have been proposed to predict these student outcomes. Inputs that have been considered include financial resources, personality traits, family and community expectations, among others. The goal of the current study is to better understand psychological predictors for both student success and student struggles at XXX. Results of surveys to students in their first semester in the College of XXX are compared to subsequent retention and success with the hopes of informing future student success interventions.

Background: Significant literature exists attempting to link student attributes such as personality traits to retention and academic success. For example, various work has shown that two aspects of the Big Five personality test (Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness) may be related to engineering student success. A previous survey of incoming first-year students at XXX included both Conscientiousness and Openness, in addition to self-direction, mindset, and self-efficacy. Results indicated that self-efficacy, self-direction, conscientiousness, and mindset were related to first semester GPA and second semester retention for first-year/first-time in college students. Based on these results, the survey instrument was tweaked to remove questions related to Openness to Experience and to focus on mathematical mindset in addition to self-efficacy and self-direction. Questions related to family educational background and careers were also added.

Methods: An online survey was created that incorporates 20 questions related to Conscientiousness, eight questions related to mathematical mindset, 10 questions related to self-direction, three questions related to self-efficacy, as well as several questions about the education and careers of family members. Personality questions were randomized. Conscientiousness questions were drawn from the open-source question bank of the International Personality Item Pool at the Oregon Research Institute ( Mindset questions were obtained from the National Mentoring Resource Center ( but were modified to focus specifically on mathematics. Self-direction questions were pulled from the work of Lounsbury and co-workers. The survey was administered to incoming students to the College of XXX who consented to participate during the Fall 2020 semester. This included both first-year/first-time in college students as well as transfer students. Students were invited to complete the survey at the start of the semester (within the first three weeks) and will be invited to complete it again near the end of the semester. Results from the survey will be compiled with academic performance results for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 along with second-year retention from the previous survey to inform future student success interventions.

Anticipated Results: Previous results showed that self-efficacy, more than any other factor, was predictive of first semester success and second semester retention. We expect similar results this year, pandemic uncertainty notwithstanding. We also hope to see a stronger effect of mindset on success when it is specifically focused on mathematics. We expect that students coming from families with high levels of education and experience in technical careers will achieve higher GPAs and retain at higher rates.

Cavalli, M., & Grice, A. (2021, July), Self-Efficacy, Mathematical Mindset, and Self-Direction in First-Year Engineering Students Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37706

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