Closing the “Affective” Gap: Employing Motivation and “Utility-Value” as Active Writing Tools to Promote Discipline Specific Retention Rates

In recent times studies have been conducted that looked at the factors that make up the demographic dropout rates amongst students, and particularly in STEM education (Kelly, 2016; Wang & Degol, 2013). What these studies particularly focused on was as to why these dropout rates were so high among women and students from a lower social economic background, and underrepresented groups in the STEM field. Moreover, these studies have revealed that the causes for these dropout rates and the demographic representation in STEM education were explained by environmental factors, and the academic aptitude of the students in question which explained the outcome of student retention rates in STEM (e.g. Wang & Degol, 2013).


What kind of a role can WAC play to increase the retention rates amongst certain groups of students? Which of the several causes of the outcome of these studies can WAC strive to improve through writing pedagogy, and by applying active learning tools in the classroom? In other words: what kind of WAC pedagogical tools are successful in raising interest and persistence in STEM education among certain student groups?


For instance, the low numbers of female students enrolled in STEM education has been heavily studied in the past decade. As a result, the data that has been generated by these studies can partly account for these low participation rates among this certain demographic of students. Some of these causes have to do with environmental factors andstereotypes about gender and STEM. As a consequence, girls might experience less encouragement and support to excel or to choose STEM-related educational programs and careers. Moreover, parental beliefs and behavior can both promote and discourage students into STEM education (Kelly, 2016; Wang & Degol, 2013). The lack of female role models can also decrease the sense of belonging in STEM for STEM students and students considering STEM education (Blickenstaff, 2005).

Moreover, cultural and societal beliefs, policy and economical and work-related developments should also be considered as an influence on students’ behavior. These last causes for the lower participation rates in the female demographic group are of particular interest as these reflect a certain disconnect of the students’ perceptions of the value of academic tasks and the students’ personal values that shape their experiences in academic contexts (Harackiewicz, 2014). Additionally, this disconnect of the students’ sense of belonging and sense of identity in an academic field one can group under the heading “affective factors”. These factors, as Wang and Degol (2013) assert, reflect a set of added motivational beliefs, such as occupational and life values as an important part of the decision-making process to pursue STEM education or STEM-related careers. Furthermore, it is found that the affective disconnect is higher in girls and students of a lower socio-economic background.


How can WAC pedagogy therefore mend this affective gap? One of several ways is to have students adopt several writing strategies in order to have them perform low stakes writing exercises, in which they rationalize their reason for taking certain courses in a STEM-related degree. More specifically, how these courses could aid in realizing certain educational goals, and/or to realize certain life goal projects reflective of one’s political, ethical and societial belief structure. As a result, studies have shown that productivity and retention increases by having students apply this active learning tool. Furthermore, in order to further understand the mechanisms behind the affective factors of belonging in STEM, one can invoke expectancy-value theory (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002), interest theory (Hidi & Renninger, 2006), and self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988), in order to then construct a pedagogical framework in which WAC could be of assistance in ameliorating this affective gap in more detail.

A part from the aforementioned low stakes writing exercises, these theories can be used to craft specific high stakes writing assignments, such as an end of term paper related to a semester long project in a STEM related course, which would bring out a deeper level of reflection of the students’ individual affective sense of belonging and utility value of the STEM course. The goal of WAC pedagogy here is to construct certain essay prompts, by way of effective assignment design, where students can relate their projects to the ethical, socio-political and personal values of the project they have undertaken on a more engaging level; and as result are therefore more motivated to pursue a degree in a field that they’ve initially dismissed as not having the potential of being a viable career path.



Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). “Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?” Gender and Education17(4), 369–386

Eddy, S. L., & Brownell, S. E. (2016). “Beneath the numbers: A review of gender disparities in undergraduate education across science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.” Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2)

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2015, November 2). “Closing Achievement Gaps With a Utility-Value Intervention: Disentangling Race and Social Class”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Judith M. Harackiewicz, Yoi Tibbetts, Elizabeth Canning, and Janet S. Hyde (2014). “Harnessing values to Promote Motivation in Education”. Adv Motiv Achiev; 18: 71–105

Kelly, A. M. (2016). “Social cognitive perspective of gender disparities in undergraduate physics.” Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2)

National Science Foundation. (2017). “Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2017”. Arlington, VA.

Wang, M. T., & Degol, J. (2013). “Motivational pathways to STEM career choices: Using expectancy-value perspective to understand individual and gender differences in STEM fields.” Developmental Review, 33(4), 304–340.

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