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Work in Progress: Openness, Conscientiousness, Self-direction, and Mindset in First-year Engineering Students

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

First-year Programs: Focus on Students

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 for Undergraduate Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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Anetra Grice Western Michigan University

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

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This Work in Progress paper will describe the results of a study of first-year engineering, technology, and computer science students related to personality traits, academic success, and retention.

Motivation: Easily quantifiable metrics for incoming engineering students like high school GPA and credits completed provide an incomplete picture of a student’s likelihood for college success, particularly at less selective institutions. Targeting limited student success resources appropriately requires predicting which students will struggle as accurately as possible. This work attempts to integrate aspects of students’ personality with performance and retention results to inform future student success and retention efforts.

Background: Prior literature has separately investigated relationships between aspects of student personality and student success. Researchers who investigated connections between the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and engineering student success have primarily identified Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness as having potential impacts on student success. Meta-analysis of the impact of mindset on student success (Fixed vs. Growth) has usually shown limited impacts when all factors are controlled unless students had low socio-economic status or were underprepared for the academic program. Separate analyses on self-direction has shown that increased levels of self-direction tend to improve engineering student success.

Methods: An online survey was created that incorporates 20 questions each related to Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness, eight questions related to mindset, and 10 questions related to self-direction. Questions were randomized. Openness to Experience and 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 ( Self-direction questions were pulled from the work of Lounsbury and co-workers. Three additional questions related to student’s confidence in completing their degree program were also included at the end of the survey. The survey was administered to all first-year engineering students who consented to participate during the Fall 2019 semester. 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 2019 and Spring 2020 along with first-year retention data to inform future student success interventions.

Anticipated Results: We anticipate that, consistent with results from the literature, students who score higher on the Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness personality traits will be more likely to be successful in engineering programs (defined by both higher GPA and program retention rates). Similarly, we expect students who score higher on the self-direction scale and who have more of a growth mindset will be more likely to be successful, particularly students identified as ‘underprepared’ based on their math placement level. However, what we do not know is how these personality traits might relate to one another with regards to student success. Based on previous research, it is also not clear how (if?) we can expect these traits to change significantly over the course of a student’s first semester in college. Ultimately, the goal is to create diagnostic tools that can be deployed as early as possible to identify students who are at risk of poor academic performance and non-retention.

Cavalli, M., & Grice, A. (2020, June), Work in Progress: Openness, Conscientiousness, Self-direction, and Mindset in First-year Engineering Students Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35674

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