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 JEE SELECTS

RESEARCH IN PRACTICE
BY BARBARA BOGUE AND ROSE MARRA

JEE SELECTSHELP HER BELIEVE IN HERSELF

Instructors should create a climate that dispels women’s self-doubt.


Janelle, an A student, is assured by teachers that she has what it takes to be an engineer. Although uncertain, she decides to go for it. But in her first engineering course, all the guys seem to know more than she, especially when it comes to using equipment. Her TA expresses surprise that she is not more adept. The result? Even though Janelle is still intrigued by engineering, she’s worried about her ability to succeed and thinking of changing majors.

Research shows that if a student believes that she can succeed, she is more likely to. In Janelle’s case, she was initially bolstered by encouragement from others, not by her own belief in her ability to succeed in engineering. Any faith she had in her ability began to crumble when she encountered roadblocks. It is this individual belief, or lack of belief, in one’s ability to take the required actions to achieve a specific outcome that is self-efficacy. Growth in self-efficacy requires that students be able to reflect on what they have accomplished and be able to project their success or failures on their future performance.

A growing body of research supports the notion that low self-efficacy discourages students from persisting in engineering. Our recent research substantiates this, but delivers a complex message. Using the LAESE (Longitudinal Assessment of Engineering Self-Efficacy instrument, from AWE, Assessing Women and Men in Engineering), we followed 196 women studying engineering for two years at five U.S. institutions. We measured responses on several subscales, or sets of questions, related to self-efficacy.

The good news is that we found positive, significant changes from the first to second years in coping skills and in self-efficacy and students’ expectations of success in math. On the downside, women showed a significant decrease in feelings of inclusion, or feelings of belonging in engineering — an important contributor to self-efficacy and, in turn, persistence in engineering. Our data also suggested that this is particularly true for minority students. Other research shows that peer relationships, educational strategies, and social climate may all contribute to an unwelcoming atmosphere.

Our study reinforced earlier findings that self-efficacy is related to women students’ plans to remain in this predominately male discipline. In fact, the stronger the sense of engineering efficacy, the more positive are the plans of all students to complete engineering studies.

How can engineering educators use this information? If we are concerned about attracting more people into engineering, it is critical to understand the value of supporting students’ internal conviction that engineering is a worthy goal and that they have the ability to achieve it. Too many practices — weeding out, assuming a natural talent or brilliance is necessary, put-down humor, insensitivity to diversity, non-inclusive classroom environments — undermine students’ engineering self-efficacy. Because women are often already marginalized in engineering, the negative impact of these behaviors is magnified.

We also must understand that self-efficacy differs from self-confidence. Self-efficacy is situational — the belief in the ability to succeed in a specific domain or task. Confidence is more generalized; a student may believe she “can succeed in anything,” but still not believe she can succeed in engineering. Your students may appear and profess to be very confident without having a strong sense of engineering efficacy. This makes it easy to miss signs that a student’s belief in her ability to succeed in engineering is diminishing, resulting in the loss of talented students.

As faculty members, we should examine which of our practices undermine students’ belief in their ability to succeed, and create environments that support student success — in the classroom and in extra-curricular activities. One way is through academic success seminars aimed at developing feelings of inclusion. When students express self-doubt, we must take the time to assure them they can succeed. We need to dispel the notion that only brilliant students become engineers by offering diverse examples of success stories.

Barbara Bogue is an associate professor of engineering science and mechanics and women in engineering at Pennsylvania State University. Rose Marra is an associate professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies at the University of Missouri. This article is excerpted from “Women Engineering Students and Self-Efficacy: A Multi-Year, Multi-Institution Study of Women Engineering Student Self-Efficacy” in the January 2009 Journal of Engineering Education. Research was supported by National Science Foundation grant HRD-0120642.

 

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