Newswise — The Department of Mathematics at West Virginia University recently received funding for a project that will look at how math anxiety impacts students’ long-term career plans.

The project, “Understanding and Improving Collegiate Persistence and STEM Opportunities for Developmental Mathematics Students,” will survey students and analyze the correlation between math-related anxiety and declining student retention rates.

Researchers hope to use the results to update mathematics courses that will improve student persistence in courses and STEM fields in the long run, said Eddie Fuller, professor and Chair of the Department of Mathematics.

Survey and demographical data will be collected from more than 600 students enrolled in Math 112, a course that focuses on basic arithmetic leading up to College Algebra.

Students will be asked how they feel about their coursework, whether taking a mathematics test gives them a strong sense of anxiety, and their long-term career goals, among other questions.

Questions from an abbreviated version of the established Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale will be given to to students. This version of the scale, developed in 1989, focuses on course anxiety, test anxiety and numerical operation anxiety.

During the two-year project, data will continue to be collected from, and about these students to track any changes in their anxiety and career plans after they have completed Math 112 and enrolled in other mathematics courses.

STEM fields provide a broad range of opportunities for mathematically proficient students, Fuller said. Researchers are interested in learning how to encourage students to stay in these fields, despite the potentially stressful coursework.

Fuller, the principal investigator for the project, is working with Jessica Deshler, an associate professor of mathematics at WVU, to analyze the data. They are also collaborating with physics professors to implement the work in other departments and at other universities.

“The nation produces fewer STEM graduates than are needed economically, so retaining more students in these degrees is of national importance,” said John Stewart, associate professor of physics, who led the development of some of the surveys being used in the project.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 48 percent of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field between 2003 and 2009 left the field by spring 2009.

The National Science Foundation program, Improving Undergraduate STEM Education, is funding the project. The $299,818 award will fund data collection, analyses and updates to the curriculum over the next two years, as well as the implementation of a peer mentoring model in the course.

Fuller said he hopes other academic disciplines will take note of the research and implement the findings into other courses that have a history of losing students to high levels of anxiety.

“There are enough parallels [with other majors] that we think that we can combine this work with the context of ACT/SAT data and look at more predictive models,” Fuller said. “These would allow us to provide better support services for students over time, and help keep them in their career and major choices.”