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Why do nearly half of U.S. college students in Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs take so long to graduate or quit outright? For any other institution, business, or organization, these numbers would be extremely troubling.

For some students, one reason is entering college with lower high school GPAs. These students are often underprepared for the academic challenges they encounter in college and are more likely to drop out. Nationally, 46% of first-year students with lower high school GPAs drop out of their STEM programs compared to only 14% of their peers with higher GPAs. This raises questions about what can be done to help these underprepared students succeed in the face of obstacles and setbacks.

One way to assist these students may be to shift the way they interpret initial failures and setbacks. Do they interpret these setbacks as indicating they are not “smart enough” to do well? Do they attribute their poor performance to the difficulty of the test or course material? Do they believe their failures are due to their teachers? From the students’ standpoint, these explanations are all uncontrollable and demotivating because little can be done to change personal aptitude, course difficulty, or the teacher. In contrast, controllable causes for failure—such as not investing enough effort or using the wrong study strategies—are under the direct control of the student and can be motivating because students can change their effort and how they study for future tests.

We have been doing research on the reasons—that is, the “attributions”—students make for failure since 1992. This research led to the development of an attribution intervention, the purpose of which is to change the kinds of attributions that students make about failure from uncontrollable to controllable ones. We have consistently found that college students who attribute academic setbacks to factors they can personally control (such as lack of effort) are more likely to perform better in their first year than students who attribute the same failures to factors they can’t control, such as bad luck or not having enough natural ability. However, very little was known about the long-term effects of these interventions on important educational outcomes such as college graduation in STEM programs.

In a recent study, we examined whether an attribution intervention program improved graduation rates for STEM students. The 496 students in our study were randomly assigned to either receive an attribution intervention program or not to receive the intervention program in their first year of university. We then tracked the graduation rates of these STEM students over an 8-year period. At the time they entered our study, students were 17-18 years old and in their first year of university; most of them were females (61%) who were enrolled full-time (97%) with a range of high school GPAs from 60% - 97% (the average GPA was 81%).

We found that, after several months, students who received the attribution intervention program made fewer uncontrollable attributions for their academic setbacks and felt more in control compared to the students who did not receive the attribution program. Furthermore, the effects of the attribution program on student graduation rates depended on students’ high school GPAs. The attribution program improved graduation rates only for students with lower GPAs who were at-risk of dropping out of college. We found that 66% of the lower GPA students who received the attribution program graduated by the end of the 8-year period compared to only 51% of those who did not receive the program. This 15% improvement in graduation rates is meaningful because, like all other students, the ultimate goal of students who enter college with lower GPAs is to earn a college degree.

Our study shows that an attribution intervention had lasting positive effects on persistence-to-graduation over an 8-year period for STEM students with lower GPAs. This finding suggests that beliefs about the causes of failure can have long-lasting implications for the motivation and educational attainment of STEM students who are at-risk of college dropout. The findings suggest that attribution interventions may be one potential remedy to help ensure that more graduates from diverse academic backgrounds make it into the STEM workforce.

For Further Reading

Hamm, J. M., Perry, R. P., Chipperfield, J. G., Hladkyj, S., Parker, P. C., & Weiner, B. (2020). Reframing achievement setbacks: A motivation intervention to improve eight-year graduation rates for students in STEM fields. Psychological Science, 31, 623-633. doi:10.1177/0956797620904451

Jeremy Hamm is Assistant Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. Raymond Perry is Distinguished Professor (Psychology) at the University of Manitoba. Steve Hladkyj is a retired Psychology Professor at the University of Manitoba.