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posted on 23.11.2022, 21:24 authored by David Ray WallerDavid Ray Waller

Persistence and graduation rates continue to be important student success outcomes for engineering programs. In part, these outcomes reflect the effectiveness of the educational experience that has been delivered to the students. This educational experience is shaped by three main factors: 1) the organizational context, 2) the peer environment, and 3) the individual student experience. Prior research on student persistence in engineering has primarily focused on peer interactions and individual student experiences, while the organizational context has not received as much attention. Yet, engineering colleges and departments have a large degree of control over their organizational contexts which can be strategically managed to promote student success.

This work investigated the relationship between organizational features of engineering programs and two student success outcomes: 1) program persistence after one academic year and, 2) engineering graduation. Student data included sociodemographics and academic records for the 2011 and 2012 engineering cohorts at a single institution. Organizational features that were evaluated included compositional diversity of students and instructors, gateway courses, program size and scale, and the curriculum. To operationalize the organizational features of the curriculum, the curricular complexity framework was used (Heileman et al., 2018). To enhance this framework, a novel method to measure the instructional complexity of a curriculum was proposed. This method determined the difficulty of a course using a performance metric called grade anomaly rather than the traditional DFW rate (the percentage of students who earn grades of D, F or withdraw). A student’s grade anomaly in a specific course is calculated relative to their performance in their other courses. A course grade anomaly is the mean grade anomaly of students in a course, and a curricular grade anomaly is the mean course grade anomaly across a curriculum. Results showed that course grade anomaly measured a different aspect of the curriculum than DFW rate and was more robust.

Multilevel models were used to determine which organizational variables influenced a student’s likelihood of program persistence and engineering graduation after accounting for individual-level factors. Program size was positively associated with both outcomes, but class size

had no effect. Gender and racial diversity in the student population had positive effects as well. More gateway courses in the curriculum had a negative impact on both outcomes, and a larger curricular DFW rate had a negative impact on engineering graduation only. The structural complexity of a curriculum had no influence on either outcome. Lastly, curricular grade anomaly had a negative effect on both outcomes, meaning students in more difficult programs were more likely to persist in the program and graduate from engineering.

These results indicate that organizational features can affect student success, and engineering faculty should consider these features when evaluating their students’ outcomes. Gender and racial diversity should be prioritized because it is beneficial for all students. The number of gateway courses should be minimized, and students should be given proper academic support to pass their difficult courses. The finding that students in more difficult programs had higher likelihoods of program persistence and engineering graduation was unexpected, and it

raised questions about the properties of curricular grade anomaly and the cultural influences of engineering education. In this work, this finding was interpreted as evidence for the meritocracy of difficulty in engineering, where students place value on academic hardship which can affect their motivation to succeed. This interpretation raises further questions about how cultures in engineering education impact the organizational features of engineering programs. Furthermore, it invites scholars to investigate other organizational features that may play a role in student persistence.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Engineering Education

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Matthew W. Ohland

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Allison Godwin

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Joyce B. Main

Additional Committee Member 4

Dr. David P. Reeping

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