Marginalized Identities of Sense-Makers: Reframing Engineering Student Retention




Students' identities and sense of belonging in a program affect whether they stay in engineering. Research suggests that students' ways of knowing and beliefs about what counts as knowing and learning – their personal epistemologies – can be aspects of their identities, or sense of self as knowers and learners.


Combining personal epistemology and identity theories suggests epistemological aspects of students' identities can influence whether they feel they belong in their engineering program. We have two research questions: Can a high-achieving engineering student be in danger of leaving a program because of a mismatch between epistemological aspects of his identity and his perceptions of the intellectual climate of their program? How does such a mismatch affect the student's day-to-day academic experiences?


For three years, we followed Michael, an electrical engineering student, through interviews and in-class observations. From more than 12 hours of semistructured clinical interviews, more than 10 hours of videotaped discussion sections, and two in-class observations in lectures, we produced a case study to characterize epistemological aspects of Michael's identity and how they influenced his perception of his program.


Michael expressed and enacted a sense-making epistemology that is a fundamental aspect of his identity as a learner. Due to this sense-making aspect of Michael's identity, he often felt alienated from the intellectual climate of his program, and he considered leaving engineering.


Researchers focused on student retention should attend to epistemological aspects of student identities. Instructors and administrators focused on retention should attend to the epistemological messages students hear from their programs.