Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.




They measure themselves — not always accurately — against classmates.

Each fall, engineering halls across the country are flooded with first-year students, excited about learning to become engineers. Unfortunately, by the end of this first year, many of these once-eager, self-confident students decide to abandon engineering for other fields. What is it about the first-year engineering environment that turns them away? And how can we, as educators, modify our approach to engineering education to capture and build on our new students’ excitement? These were questions that my colleagues and I set out to answer in a recent study. Our goal was to determine what experiences influenced students’ engineering self-efficacy beliefs; that is, we wanted to understand how they made judgments about whether they could do what was necessary to succeed in engineering. Given the statistical links between positive efficacy and increased retention, we asked students to talk about the experiences that shaped their confidence in first-year engineering success.

Before their first semester had begun, students repeatedly expressed strong confidence that they would be successful engineering students. In essence, they said, “I was successful in high school, why shouldn’t I be successful here as well?” They identified specific challenges they had overcome, such as advanced-placement physics, participation in an academic decathlon or a heavy workload of projects.

By mid-way through their first semester, the bases students used to judge their potential success had changed. Instead of citing challenges they had faced and assessing how they had performed, they were most influenced by how they compared with their peers. Some comparisons were based on how fast they could learn new material or complete assignments. One student told of a classmate’s skill at computer coding, describing how “he sits there and spits out these scripts, and I’m like still writing my name.” Students also compared their own abilities to contribute to teamwork to those of their peers or, alternatively, their need to seek help from teammates. Grades and the amount of course material that they had mastered also served as means of comparison.

Distinct gender differences emerged. While men usually concluded that they were superior to their peers, women most often concluded that they were inferior – assessments that were, in both cases, not always accurate. When citing particular challenges, women tended to dwell on their failures; men only rarely. Lack of communication by faculty contributed to discouragement, as did a perception among half the students that tough grades were a weed-out tactic.

When students find themselves in situations where they perceive their performance to be inferior to their peers’, they lose confidence. How can educators help students avoid discouragement? One way would be for faculty to remind students that they come from different social and educational backgrounds, which have prepared them to take different approaches to their coursework. These different approaches should be welcomed, because they contribute to diverse engineering solutions. Instructors could also explain to students that how long it takes them to solve a problem is less important than eventually understanding and solving it. They might design group work assignments that let each student contribute to the learning of the others. Educators should try, early on, to build students’ self-efficacy by giving them the chance to master particular skills. Finally, instructors need to give students clear and concise feedback.

Ultimately, our goal as educators should be not only to teach engineering but to give students an accurate way of measuring their successes and failures. By ensuring that they are using appropriate experience to shape their confidence in engineering success, we can improve retention of the students who come to us so excited about learning engineering.


Mica A. Hutchison-Green is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education at Northwestern University. This article is exerpted from “Providing a Voice: Qualitative Investigation of the Impact of a First-Year Engineering Experience on Students’ Efficacy Beliefs” in the April 2008 Journal of Engineering Education.




© Copyright 2008
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500