Date of Award

January 2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching & Learning

First Advisor

Richard V. Eck


Concerns have been raised about the ability of the U.S. to maintain its global technological competitive advantage in the future because of American college students’ attitudes—particularly women—toward STEM programs and careers (Chen, 2013; Ehrenberg, 2010; Palmer & Wood, 2013). Many female students graduate from high school academically well-prepared to pursue STEM majors, and many choose to pursue STEM majors in college, yet many also leave those majors (Chen, 2015; Hill, Corbett, & Rose, 2010). Theories such as perceived value and expectations for success (Eccles et al., 1983), self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977, 1986), and self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 1985) have been advanced as a way to understand this phenomenon.

The main purpose of this study was to examine the reason that women persist in or switch from STEM majors and to examine how they differ in their reasons for their decisions. This study adopted Eccles et al.’s expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation as the theoretical framework and used an explanatory-sequential mixed-methods research design (QUAN→qual=explain results). Three hundred and fifty-six individuals from a large Midwestern research university took part in an online survey during the quantitative portion of this study, and 9 were invited to participate in follow-up focus group interviews.

Findings indicate that participants were influenced to persist or switch from STEM programs because of a variety of academic and institutional, career, financial, social, and psychological factors, with the latter appearing to be the most important

factors. The majority of those who left STEM majors (“switchers”) did so during the first 2 years of college. The quantitative results revealed that those who stayed in STEM programs (“persisters”) placed higher value on STEM fields, had higher expectations for success in STEM careers, and scored higher on the perceived success in STEM courses subscale than their STEM switcher counterparts. Perceived success in STEM courses and perceived value of STEM fields predicted expectations for success in STEM careers. Findings are discussed in light of Eccles et al.’s (1983) expectancy-value theory and practical implications of the study are discussed.