Engage to Excel: A Report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)

(Note: This posting establishes the context for the aspirations Dr. Gutierrez has for his learners. It comes from the archives of influential national reports that are valuable resources for planners—at all stage of the planning process. It makes the case for evidence-based teaching, provides a comprehensive list of research-based pedagogies and establishes the urgency of taking collective and informed action in the service of the nation.)

[Excerpts presented below. Full report: Engage to Excel.] 


Research indicates that student persistence in a STEM degree is associated primarily with three aspects of their experience.

The first concerns intellectual engagement and achievement. Compared with students in traditional lectures, students who play an active role in the pursuit of scientific knowledge learn more and develop more confidence in their abilities, thereby increasing their persistence in STEM majors. This engagement can be accomplished in both the classroom and research lab. Many types of classroom instruction that engage students in thinking or problem­solving increase learning and enhance attitudes toward STEM fields. These gains translate into better retention of students in STEM majors.

The second aspect of a student’s experience that affects persistence is motivation. Motivation is partially intrinsic but also is modulated by the college environment. A key in maintaining student motivation is having role models. The majority of U.S. STEM faculty are white, male, able­bodied, and middle class and have had many role models with whom to identify. Role models who are women and ethnic minorities increase the performance and retention of students in those same groups. Financial concerns, lack of encouragement from family members, and a deficit of peers from similar backgrounds can erode self­confidence and the will to remain in STEM majors. 

The third aspect of a student’s experience that affects persistence is identification with a STEM field. Recent work suggests that identification with a group or community of STEM professionals may overshadow many other factors in determining persistence. Developing meaningful relationships with peers and instructors, involvement in study groups, and participation in a research laboratory all are associated with reduced departures from STEM fields.


All three of the aspects of student experience discussed above must be addressed to increase retention among STEM students. [A key strategy we propose]:

Adopt STEM teaching strategies that emphasize student engagement. The lecture has been a mainstay of higher education since the word “lecture” was created in the 14th century, and today most introductory STEM courses are taught largely through lectures. Extensive research on how the human brain learns indicates that diversifying teaching methods enhances critical thinking skills, long­term retention of information, and student retention in STEM majors.

Moreover, these active learning techniques benefit all students and can close the achievement gap between ethnic groups and men and women. We therefore recommend that STEM faculty learn how to use and incorporate highly effective teaching methods into their introductory STEM courses, including the opportunity to generate knowledge through research. These methods should include research courses, other forms of active student engagement, and learning assessment as part of a continued cycle of improvement in STEM education.