First Advisor

McGlaughlin, Mitchell

Second Advisor

Higgins, Teresa

Document Type


Date Created



College of Natural and Health Sciences, Biological Sciences, Biological Sciences Student Work

Embargo Date



Undergraduate success and persistence in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields is of critical importance to the United States (U.S.) maintenance of its position as the world leader in scientific innovations. While the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded annually has nearly tripled over the past 40 years, the same cannot be said for the proportion of degrees in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. The U.S. share of the world’s STEM graduates is sharply declining, on average less than 40% of incoming college freshmen elect to pursue a degree in a STEM field each year, with more than half of those individuals declaring a major in the biological sciences or a closely related area (e.g., premedicine, pre-health or nursing). Research indicates that, there is need to promote success and persistence among the undergraduates undertaking STEM fields. In an effort to address this call, a majority of research has employed a variety of empirically validated instruction strategies designed to promote undergraduate success and persistence in biological sciences. Although of integral importance, such studies have often not extensively explored the impact of motivational and attitudinal factors in tandem with demographic and educational characteristics, especially in the field of biology. The current study used quantitative methods utilizing Quasi experimental design to examine the impact of motivational and attitudinal factors alongside with demographic and secondary characteristics in relation to students’ success and persistence in biology among students enrolled in two introductory biology courses (Principles of Biology and Organismal Biology) at a mid-size research and teaching university. Additionally, the study examined to what extent do such factors differentially predict success and persistence among underrepresented minority and first generation students within the aforementioned cohort. A second component of the study used qualitative inquiry and thematic data analysis techniques, to explore the persistence of both average and below average performing students in biology by examining their experiences in biology program. Analyses examining student success found that motivational factors were equally important predictors of success among all student types. The top demographic predictors of success were: index score (a combination of high school GPA, SAT and ACT scores), minority status and first generation status, uniquely explaining 4.7%, 3.0% and 1% of variance in students’ course grade, respectively. The attitudinal predictors of students’ success were: students’ ability to apply knowledge to solve biology-specific tasks and enjoyment of the biology major each explaining 1.0% of variance in students’ final course grade. Among the underrepresented minority students, dual enrollment in an active learning-based supplemental instruction course explained 1.1% of the variance. Analyses examining predictors of persistence in biology found that self-efficacy and grade motivation were the important motivational factors predicting students’ persistence. Strategies employed by students to solve biology problems was the only attitudinal factor important for persistence in biology. Students’ final percent course grade in introductory biology courses also emerged as a significant predictor of student persistence in biology. Interestingly, first generation students were more likely to persist in biology compared to continuing students, while minority students were less likely to persist in biology compared to non-minority students. The qualitative aspects of this study involved 12 participants, among these, 10 had persisted in biology while 2 had switched from biology to other majors. The four most important factors highlighted by the participants were: challenges associated with transitioning from high school to college, instructional aspects of the introductory biology courses, effects of participants’ social interactions and aspects of competition and weeding out in biology introductory courses. The results and findings from this study suggests several things. First, developing and nurturing proper motivations and positive attitudes in post-secondary classrooms alongside with factoring motivational and attitudinal factors that are important for URMs and FGs success and persistence may be a step forward in addressing the critical problem of success in STEM fields in general. Second, meaningful engagement of students in solving biology related problems appears to be an essential task of educators leading first-semester biology experiences. Thirdly, approaches geared towards increasing student success in introductory courses seem to be essential in students’ persistence in specific majors. Finally, the study findings suggest that students’ success and persistence in biology may be reduced with sufficient streamlining of high school preparation to meet college level expectations with respect to what high school graduates entering college need to know and be able to do for success and persistence in college.


average and below average performing students, Biology, Mixed methods, Persistence, Students, Success


314 pages

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