The Psychology
of Insight


Anyone who has ever attended an engineering school, either as a student or a teacher, knows that the number of students who graduate is smaller—often much smaller—than the number who enter the program.

In fact, between 30 and 60 percent of students who initially enter engineering switch majors, according to a survey by the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering which looked at 10,000 students at 22 engineering schools. Dropout rates are highest during the first two years.

It is a loss because many students who drop out of engineering programs are academically prepared. Most received high scores on standardized math tests and did well in high school and in advanced placement science classes.

There is no reason they should not become engineers. Engineering schools can do a better job—a much better job—of making sure that happens.

Researchers have accumulated decades’ worth of studies on time-effective, low-cost actions that engineering faculty can take to improve student retention rates. They include using everyday examples to teach engineering concepts, improving spatial visualization skills, and changing how faculty interacts with students.

Individual faculty or entire engineering schools can implement these strategies without expending much time or money. They do not require any significant changes in curricula or course design, yet they can make dramatic differences in outcomes.


April 2013

by Susan Staffin