Toward STEM Degrees: Gatekeepter Courses

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Since the 70s, the proportion of whites and Underrepresented Groups (URGs) interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) field has converged; URG students’ completion rates, however, have continuously fallen behind (Rask, 2010).


An URG student can face substantial difficulties when attempting to complete their STEM degree. This phenomenon led researchers to focus their attention on student attainment and attrition rate to STEM majors. Findings have shown that a student’s experience while completing the introductory college math and science courses, in combination with the student’s engagement with their professors and in the classroom, are important factors in the choice to pursue and complete a STEM major (Daempfle, 2002; Dai & Cromley, 2014; Gasiewski, Eagan, Garcia, Hurtado, & Chang, 2012; Rask, 2010). As we are witnessing more students interested in the STEM field, improving the quality and quantity of the gatekeeper courses becomes essential.


STEM gatekeeper courses are defined as introductory STEM courses (Rask, 2010; Gasiewski, Eagan, Garcia, Hurtado & Chang, 2012) and required science courses within the program that lead to a STEM degree.

Introductory math and science courses are the most commonly seen definition for gatekeeper courses. This type of gatekeeper course can also be referred to as “gateway courses” (Dai & Cromley, 2014). These courses are likely to be considered as General Education (GE) science requirement (e.g., almost in all BUILD primary sites, students are required to take at least 1 or 2 science or math introductory course to fulfill the GE requirements). Due to the demand of taking these introductory courses, most sites provide a variety of science and math introductory courses across departments, and many of these courses are held in a large lecture-based format, leaving very little room for classroom engagement. Many previous studies have found that student’s experience and performance in the introductory STEM courses are highly associated with STEM major attainment (Rask, 2010). If students have a positive experience in their first introductory STEM Gatekeeper course, there is a higher probability that they will take a second course in STEM. For students who have decided to enter into STEM fields, their positive experiences and achievements in the gateway courses will promote STEM retention. Meanwhile, the introductory STEM courses could potentially attract non-STEM students (especially major undeclared students) to explore the STEM world and get onto the STEM career path. Therefore, previous researchers proposed different ways to improve student experience and performance in these courses, such as balancing grading style, improving students’ engagement in class, managing sequence and timing of taking courses, and providing assistance through developmental courses or instructional supplement.

After completing major GE requirements, interested students are able to declare their path towards a bachelor degree in science, and then a major in the STEM field.


These required courses can also be considered as gatekeeper courses, since students’ performance in these classes could determine if the students are qualified to get a degree in the STEM field. In some universities, science degree requirements and STEM major requirements are combined; while in some others, they are separate, thus requirements are similar, but unique in different institutions. As an example, in the BUILD primary sites, at Portland State University, in order to get a BS degree in a STEM major, students have to fulfill the GE and BS requirements, and then complete the major requirements. At California State University at Northridge, completing GE, lower division and upper division requirements can lead to a BS in STEM major.

In conclusion, research on the gatekeeper courses suggested that we need more research in curriculum development (promoting student-centered learning) and in providing more types of gatekeeper courses (or supplemental instruction and developmental courses). Many of the gatekeeper courses are large lecture-based courses and thus can lack engaging pedagogy. Curriculum design and activity planning in the teaching-learning process is essential; however, there was little research on the course designing and planning process (Stark, 2000). Moreover, proper professional development for instructors can be helpful for instructors to better engage their students. Previous research also indicated that these gatekeeper course were losing students due to a highly competitive classroom or a lack of engaging pedagogy that promotes active participation (Crisp, Nora, & Taggart, 2009). The competitiveness of classroom comes from the content and the grading system. Gasiewski et al. (2012) quoted that ‘‘The culture of science says, ‘Not everybody is good enough to cut it, and were going to make it hard for them, and the cream will rise to the top(Epstein, 2006).” — the difficulty level of the gatekeeper courses increase over time, and students, especially those from URGs, who were unable to access college prep science courses in high school, could hit road blocks, preventing them to graduate with a STEM major. Meanwhile, some current grading systems are pushing students away from STEM. Non-STEM grades are inflating over time faster than STEM grades. As Sabot and Wakeman-Linn’s research stated (1991, p. 168, quoted in Rask, 2010), “If the Math department adopted in its introductory course the English 101 grading distribution, our simulation indicates an 80.2 percent increase in the number of students taking at least one additional Math course!” It is evident that the competitiveness and grading system of these gatekeeper courses are identifiable reasons that may explain the diverging retention rates. Research implementation on how best to engage and support URGs interested in STEM is necessary to move the needle towards increased retention rates for URGs in STEM. 


Rask, K. (2010). Attrition in STEM fields at a liberal arts college: The importance of grades and pre-collegiate preferences. Economics of Education Review, 29(6), 892-900.

Gasiewski, J. A., Eagan, M. K., Garcia, G. A., Hurtado, S., & Chang, M. J. (2012). From gatekeeping to engagement: A multicontextual, mixed method study of student academic engagement in introductory STEM courses. Research in higher education, 53(2), 229-261.

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.

Stark, J. S. (2000). Planning introductory college courses: Content, context and form. Instructional Science, 28(5), 413-438.

Crisp, G., Nora, A., & Taggart, A. (2009). Student characteristics, pre-college, college, and environmental factors as predictors of majoring in and earning a STEM degree: An analysis of students attending a Hispanic serving institution.