First-generation college students and students from low-income families face a unique set of challenges in navigating the college experience. In addition to external obstacles, these students may also approach courses with a different internal landscape of beliefs about their ability to succeed in class. In the current research, we examined the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of first-generation and low-income students in prerequisite and introductory engineering courses.
236 declared or intended engineering majors in prerequisite or introductory classes required for the majority of engineering majors completed an initial survey in which they reported demographic information, their beliefs that intelligence is a stable and unchangeable trait (“entity theory”), their perceptions of their ability to succeed in the class, whether their career goals focused on working with and helping others and/or on individual achievement (“communal goals” and “agentic goals”, respectively) and their beliefs that the course was relevant to their intended future career. Students who completed this survey were invited to participate in additional surveys that assessed their thoughts and feelings about the first exam and their continued ability to succeed in the course, as well as their study behaviors in the course. Students reported their grade on the first exam and provided permission for their instructor to release their final course grade.
Students were classified as first-generation if they did not have a parent who had completed a B.A (16.6% of the sample). Students were classified as low-income if they reported that their annual family income was under $50,000 (17.2% of the sample).
In the initial survey, comparing first-generation to non-first-generation and low-income to middle and high income students indicated that both groups of students began the semester with the same beliefs as their peers. The groups did not differ in their endorsement of entity theories, their beliefs about whether they can pass the course, their agentic or communal career goals and whether the course was relevant to their career goals.
Preliminary data from 72 students indicates that compared to their peers, both first-generation and low-income students performed the same on the first exam and in the course overall and had the same beliefs they could succeed in the course after the first exam. However, both groups were more likely than their peers to report thinking about how the first exam could have gone worse; low-income students (but not first-generation) reported being more focused how they should have done things differently on the first exam. Additionally, first-generation students were more likely to report using the online discussion forum in the course, doing practice problems, and reviewing their own notes. Low-income students were less likely to report taking notes in class, participating in a study group with peers, and using the online discussion forum for the class.
First-generation and low-income students thus largely begin early courses with the same attitudes and beliefs as their peers, but to have somewhat different experiences in these courses.
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