T8-MD-2 - The Role of Introductory Course Grades in Engineering Disciplinary Cultures

3. Research Work In Progress
Matthew Ohland1 , Susan Lord2
1 Purdue University
2 University of San Diego

This work-in-progress paper builds on research that has shown that there are cultural differences among the engineering disciplines as well as some cultural trends that seem common in engineering more generally. A hierarchy of engineering disciplines is part of that culture, sometimes explicit and sometimes unspoken. Recent longitudinal studies have made an effort to associate those disciplinary differences in culture with disciplinary differences in various student outcomes—the graduation rates of students who matriculate in a discipline, the graduation rate of students ever enrolled in a discipline (stickiness), migration rate (the fraction of students changing engineering disciplines attracted by a discipline), migration yield (the fraction of migrating students that graduate in that discipline), and others.

An earlier longitudinal study showed no disciplinary stratification of grades in common early engineering courses based on the engineering discipline in which a student matriculates (or first enrolls after a first-year engineering program). Using the Multiple-Institution Database for Investigating Longitudinal Development (MIDFIELD), it was found that grade stratification emerges on the path toward graduation. The average grades in common early engineering courses that are generally taken by students of all engineering disciplines—such as Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics—were calculated for students graduating in various disciplines. Notable differences emerged.

It is important to note that the average grades for students graduating in a discipline are higher than the average grades for students who first enroll in that discipline. This is not surprising, since there will be students in all disciplines with grades that by policy are too low to continue their studies in that major (or at all). The presence of range restriction at the lower end of the grade distribution would predict that outcome. What is interesting as stratification emerges is that some engineering disciplines have a more severe restriction of range than others.

The presence of disciplinary differences in the range restriction of grades in earlier courses suggests that there are cultural expectations for who “belongs” in each discipline based on their grades in those early courses. These cultural expectations likely commingle with other cultural expectations of who “belongs,” creating a complicated dynamic, particularly for students likely to be marginalized for other reasons.

The dynamics of cultural transmission are complex, and the messages about who “belongs” are likely to be delivered and reinforced by students, instructors, advisors, administrators, and departmental policies. This work provides a data-driven perspective on engineering disciplinary differences but stops short of exploring qualitative explanations for the observed disciplinary stratification.  Rather this work suggests areas for further quantitative and qualitative research and discusses how care must be taken in further work in this area. Whereas this research seeks to diagnose conditions that make engineering less inclusive and promote cultural change, it has the potential to reinforce cultural conditions.