The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

The roles of social influences on student competence, relatedness, achievement, and retention in STEM

Partners' Institution
University of Perugia
Year of publication
Educational stage
University Level
Journal name
Science Education
Thematic Area
STEAM intervention (teaching strategies, evaluation...), Students’ Difficulties
As a result of an American study, only 46% of STEM learners complete their college degrees on time, and the percentage is even lower for underrepresented groups (26.8%, for females and minority groups). Many of these students choose to leave their initial STEM major for other fields or leave university entirely. The paper tries to deepen the knowledge about underrepresented students’ experiences and the kind of additional support they require to successfully graduate in a STEM major. In particular, the study is focused on two factors that suggest retention and achievement for these students. Firstly, it performs a comparative analysis examining the degree of relatedness and competence that typical and underrepresented groups report; secondly, it investigates if the perceived social support, relatedness, and competence that students report have different implications for students who are in the underrepresented group or not.
The method used for the study involves the participation of 405 students from an undergraduate anatomy and physiology class through a set of questionnaires. Of all students, 34.5% are from underrepresented minorities (Asian, African, Hispanic, and Latino) and 24.8% are first-generation students (meaning their parents didn’t graduate from college).
The research questions the paper tries to address are:
1) Do undergraduate STEM students from underrepresented groups report different levels of competence, relatedness or social support compared to their classmates?
2) How do STEM undergraduates’ sources of social support influence their perceptions of competence and relatedness, and how do these factors influence performance and retention in STEM courses?
3) Do sources of social support have different effects on competence and relatedness for underrepresented students, and do they strongly predict achievement and retention outcomes for these students?
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The study investigates the social factors mentioned above through the lenses of the self-determination theory. Which is based on the notion that individuals are intrinsically motivated to develop through the use of integrative activities. Motivation, within this theory, is assumed related to the degree in which 3 needs are met: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Students with high levels of autonomy, competence, and relatedness demonstrate higher academic motivation and career achievements.
1) Autonomy support is achieved when the students feel their teacher is interested in their perspective (meaning that they feel that their opinions matter and they have some control on what they’re taught), encourages exploration, and provides choices for students.
2) Competence is defined as the degree to which an individual believes they can complete a task successfully. It derives from 4 sources: prior personal experiences, vicarious experiences of mastery (witnessing the competence of a role model), social persuasion, and physiological experiences. A low level of perceived competence find difficulty staying in a STEM career due to diminished levels of motivation and self-confidence.
3) Relatedness can be understood as “finding a role in relation to others, which will make the subject feel valued and will contribute to their feeling of self-worth and kinship with an increasing number of persons”. In academic settings, relatedness can be achieved through social support from peers and teachers, the last ones by means of interactions that demonstrate emotional viability and dedication of attention and time.
The study focuses on the last 2 needs, as students’ perception of competence and relatedness mostly come from their social context. On the other hand, autonomy is mostly developed through interactions by authority figures (i.e., teachers).
On the technical side, the participants to the study completed 3 surveys during a semester. Variables pertinent to the research questions (perception of competence, feeling of relatedness, friends’ and peers’ value of STEM, contact with STEM peers and STEM classmates, intent to leave STEAM, and final grade) were obtained through multiple answers on the subject with scales from 1-to-6 or 1-to-4. The participants were divided in subgroups based on determining factors: gender, minority group, generation order. For each subgroup mean and standard deviation were calculated.
In order to discern students’ perception of social support, competence, and relatedness (R.Q.1) across groups, independent samples t-tests are performed. To examine the effect of social support on perception of competence and relatedness, and how these factors influence performance and retention in STEM courses (R.Q.2) a path analysis is conducted for the total sample. Multigroup path analyses are instead conducted to examine differences in the relative strength of predictive relationships between underrepresented and majority subgroups (R.Q.3).
Major findings are:
- All subgroups reported similar levels of social support, competence, and relatedness. (Related to R.Q.1)
- For all students, greater perceived competence, classmate contact, and friends’ value of STEM lessened the intent to leave their major. Students also reported that STEM classmate contact positively predicted perceived competence and that peer contact positively predicted relatedness. (Related to R.Q.2)
- Multigroup analyses specific to gender highlighted that women's intention to leave their major was diminished by competence and classmate contact. Classmate contact had further indirect effects on diminishing intent to leave by promoting greater perceptions of competence. A greater sense of relatedness further diminished female students’ intention to leave their major (This was a path unique to females). (Related to R.Q.3)
- Among all learners, peer contact was an important source of social support for developing a sense of relatedness. This path was not present for the less well-represented group, who instead derived greater perceptions of competence from classmate contact. This competence in turn negatively predicted intentions to leave, underscoring that one's competence is a particularly critical factor to promote for underrepresented students. (Related to R.Q.3)
Point of Strength
While the study is not an intervention it gives some information that could be used in practice. The paper suggests the use of peer mentoring as a viable way to enhance the feeling of relatedness. Furthermore, teachers can employ methods such as group projects or group quizzes to promote inter-classmate connections. Perceived competence can also be encouraged through peer mentoring, as it allows students to establish vicariously perceived competence when working with a successful peer.
higher education, motivation, science retention
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