Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Incremental Beliefs, STEM Efficacy and STEM Interest Among First-Year Undergraduate Students


Low retention rates of undergraduate students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields are a persistent problem in the USA. Information and knowledge of STEM topics is valuable in today’s modern and global society, and STEM jobs are both lucrative and in high demand. As such, engagement and retention of undergraduate students in STEM is essential to ensure STEM jobs have skilled employees to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. Participants were 1201 first-year undergraduate students from a STEM-focused university. Results from mediation and moderated mediation analyses suggest that incremental beliefs predict a variety of STEM outcomes (STEM interest, sense of belonging in STEM environment, identity compatibility) through STEM efficacy for STEM majors, not non-STEM majors, all of which are associated with STEM engagement and persistence. More specifically, for STEM majors, incremental beliefs predict higher STEM efficacy which then predicts greater STEM interest and sense of belonging in STEM as well as greater perceived identity compatibility between oneself and STEM and between one’s gender and STEM. Future directions and implications are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Change history

  • 18 February 2020

    The original version of this article unfortunately contained a mistake in the article title. The word “Students” was inadvertently deleted.


  1. Ahlqvist, S., London, B., & Rosenthal, L. (2013). Unstable identity compatibility: How gender rejection sensitivity undermines the success of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1644–1652.

  2. Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(4), 596–612.

  3. Bagès, C., & Martinot, D. (2011). What is the best model for girls and boys faced with a standardized mathematics evaluation situation: A hardworking role model or a gifted role model? British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 536–543.

  4. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

  5. Bartholomew, H., Darragh, L., Ell, F., & Saunders, J. (2011). ‘I’m a natural and I do it for love!’: Exploring students’ accounts of studying mathematics. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 42(7), 915–924.

  6. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.

  7. Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263.

  8. Borgen, F. H., & Betz, N. E. (2008). Vocational self-efficacy and personality: Linking vocational confidence and the healthy personality. Journal of Vocational Assessment, 16, 22–43.

  9. Chen, X. (2013). STEM Attrition: College students’ paths into and out of STEM fields (NCES2014–001). Washington: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

  10. Chen, J. A., & Tutwiler, M. S. (2017). Implicit theories of ability and self-efficacy. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 225, 127–136.

  11. Dai, T., & Cromley, J. G. (2014). Changes in implicit theories of ability in biology and dropout from STEM majors: A latent growth curve approach. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39(3), 233–247.

  12. Degol, J. L., Wang, M. T., Zhang, Y., & Allerton, J. (2018). Do growth mindsets in math benefit females? Identifying pathways between gender, mindset, and motivation. Journal of youth and adolescence, 47(5), 976–990.

  13. Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis/Psychology Press.

  14. Dweck, C. S. (2013). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology press.

  15. Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256–273.

  16. Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (2000). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Key reading in social psychology. Motivational science: Social and personality perspectives (pp. 394–415). New York: Psychology Press.

  17. Falk, D., Lepore, F. E., & Noe, A. (2012). The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: A description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs. Brain, 136(4), 1304–1327.

  18. Fayer, S., Lacey, A., & Watson, A. (2017). STEM occupations: Past, present, and future. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: mathematics-stem-occupations-past-present-and-future.pdf.

  19. Flanigan, A. E., Peteranetz, M. S., Shell, D. F., & Soh, L.-K. (2017). Implicit intelligence beliefs of computer science students: Exploring change across the semester. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 48, 179–196.

  20. Gonida, E., Kiosseoglou, G., & Leondari, A. (2006). Implicit theories of intelligence, perceived academic competence, and school achievement: Testing alternative models. The American journal of psychology, 223238.

  21. Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645–662.

  22. Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(4), 700.

  23. Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process. analysis: A regression based approach. New York: The Guilford Press.

  24. Hong, H., & Lin-Siegler, X. (2012). How learning about scientists’ struggles influences students’ interest and learning in physics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 469–484.

  25. Kennedy, B., Hefferon, M., & Funk, C. (January 17, 2018). Half of Americans think young people don’t pursue STEM because it is too hard. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: americans-think-young-people-dont-pursue-stem-because-it-is-too-hard/.

  26. Kitts, K. (2009). The paradox of middle and high school students' attitudes towards science versus their attitudes about science as a career. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57(2), 159–164.

  27. Komarraju, M., Swanson, J., & Nadler, D. (2014). Increased career self-efficacy predicts college students’ motivation, and course and major satisfaction. Journal of Career Assessment, 22(3), 420–432.

  28. Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T. F., Hicks, J. A., Kamble, S., Baumeister, R. F., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). To belong is to matter: Sense of belonging enhances meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1418–1427.

  29. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., Schmidt, J., Brenner, B., Lyons, H., & Treistman, D. (2003). Relation of contextual supports and barriers to choice behavior in engineering majors: Test of alternative social cognitive models. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50(4), 458–465.

  30. Leslie, S., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347(6219), 262–265.

  31. London, B., Rosenthal, L., Levy, S. R., & Lobel, M. (2011). The influences of.perceived identity compatibility and social support on women in non-traditional fields during the college transition. Basic and Applied Social. Psychology, 33(4), 304–321.

  32. Malcom, S. & Feder, M. (2016). Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees. Retrieved from: Accessed 8 Feb 2020.

  33. Marra, R. M., Rodgers, K. A., Shen, D., & Bogue, B. (2012). Leaving engineering: A multi-year single institution study. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(1), 6–27.

  34. McDonald, M. M., Zeigler-Hill, V., Vrabel, J. K., & Escobar, M. (2019). A single-item measure for assessing STEM identity. In Frontiers in Education. Frontiers, 4, 78.

  35. Moss-Racusin, C. A., Sanzari, C., Caluori, N., & Rabasco, H. (2018). Gender bias produces gender gaps in STEM engagement. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 79(11–12), 651–670.

  36. Muller, D., Judd, C. M., & Yzerbyt, V. Y. (2005). When moderation is mediated and mediation is moderated. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(6), 852–863.

  37. National Science Board. (2018). Science and Engineering Indicators 2018 Digest. NSB-2018-2. Alexandria: National Science Foundation Retrieved from:

  38. National Science Board NSB; 2015. Revisiting the STEM workforce, a companion to science and engineering indicators 2014, Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 2015–10). Retrieved from:

  39. Osborne, J. W., & Walker, C. (2006). Stereotype threat, identification with academics, and withdrawal from school: Why the most successful students of colour might be most likely to withdraw. Educational Psychology, 26(4), 563–577.

  40. Preacher, K. J., Rucker, D. D., & Hayes, A. F. (2007). Addressing moderated mediation.hypotheses: Theory, methods, and prescriptions. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 42, 185–227.

  41. Rosenthal, L., London, B., Levy, S. R., & Lobel, M. (2011a). The roles of perceived identity compatibility and social support for women in a single-sex STEM program at a co educational university. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 65(9–10), 725–736.

  42. Rosenthal, L., London, B., Levy, S. R., Lobel, M., & Herrera-Alcazar, A. (2011b). The relation between the Protestant work ethic and undergraduate women’s perceived identity compatibility in STEM majors. Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, 11(1), 241–262.

  43. Rosenthal, L., Levy, S. R., London, B., Lobel, M., & Bazile, C. (2013). In pursuit of the MD: The impact of role models, identity compatibility, and belonging among undergraduate women. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 68(7–8), 464–473.

  44. Salem, T. (2018). Study: Boys’ interest in STEM careers declining. U.S. News and World Report. Accessed 8 Feb 2020.

  45. Settles, I. H. (2004). When multiple identities interfere: The role of identity centrality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(4), 487–500.

  46. Settles, I. H., Jellison, W. A., & Pratt-Hyatt, J. S. (2009). Identification with multiple social groups: The moderating role of identity change over time among women-scientists. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(5), 856–867.

  47. Shapiro, J. R., & Williams, A. M. (2012). The role of stereotype threats in undermining girls’ and women’s performance and interest in STEM fields. Sex Roles, 66(3–4), 175–183.

  48. Shin, J. E. L., Levy, S. R., & London, B. (2016a). Effects of role model exposure on stem and non-stem student engagement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(7), 410–427.

  49. Shin, J. E. L., Rosenthal, L., Levy, S. R., Lytle, A., London, B., & Lobel, M. (2016b). The roles of the Protestant work ethic and perceived identity compatibility in graduate students' feelings and attitudes toward STEM and non-STEM fields. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 22, 309–327.

  50. Shively, R. L., & Ryan, C. S. (2013). Longitudinal changes in college math students’ implicit theories of intelligence. Social Psychology of Education, 16(2), 241–256.

  51. Smith, J. L., Lewis, K. L., Hawthorne, L., & Hodges, S. D. (2013). When trying hard isn’t natural: Women’s belonging with and motivation for male-dominated STEM fields as a function of effort expenditure concerns. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(2), 131–143.

  52. Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women's math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 4–28.

  53. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey: Brooks/ Cole.

  54. Tellhed, U., Bäckström, M., & Björklund, F. (2017). Will I fit in and do well? The importance of social belongingness and self-efficacy for explaining gender differences in interest in STEM and HEED majors. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 77(1–2), 86–96.

  55. Van Aalderen, S. S. I., Walma van der Molen, J. H., & Xenidou, D. I. (2018). Implicit stem ability beliefs predict secondary school students’ stem self-efficacy beliefs and their intention to opt for a stem field career. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

  56. Van Aalderen-Smeets, S. I., & Walma van der Molen, J. H. (2016). Modelling the relation between students' implicit beliefs about their abilities and their educational STEM choices. Journal of Technology and Design Education, 28, 1–27.

  57. Varas, J. 2016. The native-born STEM shortage. American Action Forum. Retrieved from:

  58. Walker, C. O., & Greene, B. A. (2009). The relations between student motivational beliefs and cognitive engagement in high school. The Journal of Educational Research, 102(6), 463–471.

  59. Wang, X. (2013). Why students choose STEM majors: Motivation, high school learning, and postsecondary context of support. American Educational Research Journal, 50(5), 1081–1121.

  60. Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68–81.

  61. Xie, Y., & Achen, A. (2009). Science on the decline? Educational outcomes of three cohorts of young Americans. Population Studies Center Research Report 09–684.

  62. Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314.

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Ashley Lytle.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

The original version of this article was revised: The original version of this article unfortunately contained a mistake in the article title. The word “Students” was inadvertently deleted.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lytle, A., Shin, J.E. Incremental Beliefs, STEM Efficacy and STEM Interest Among First-Year Undergraduate Students. J Sci Educ Technol (2020).

Download citation


  • STEM interest
  • Intelligence beliefs
  • Self-efficacy
  • Sense of belonging
  • Perceived identity compatibility