Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Urban Education


Wesley Pitts

Committee Members

Nicholas Michelli

Brahmadeo Dewprashad

Subject Categories

Adult and Continuing Education and Teaching | Community College Leadership | Curriculum and Instruction | Education | Higher Education and Teaching | Science and Mathematics Education


STEM, Education, Cortisol, Learned helplessness


This dissertation seeks to determine whether a relationship between STEM attrition and Learned Helplessness exist in a group of first year STEM majors studied at an urban community college. STEM attrition rates have shown that 69% of the 20% of incoming STEM freshmen in associate degree programs, drop out or switch their majors to non-STEM curriculum within their first year of college (NCES, 2013). Learned helplessness is a behavioral phenomenon where some may become helpless as the conditions surrounding their success become adverse. Classic signs expressed with learned helplessness include: lack of motivation, depression, poor social skills, absence of control and loneliness. Those suffering with learned helplessness may simply gave up and drop out of college when they repeatedly confront unsuccessful academic outcomes and or social structures in college. This dissertation is crucial as it may help to determine a connection between attrition and learned helplessness at the community college level, as well as identify best practices for overcoming STEM attrition due to learn helplessness as it relates to the student, the faculty and the institution overall. The dissertation is structured in a three – tiered mix-method study approach, the coping Survey (Chapter 2), cortisol analysis (Chapter 3) and the interviews with students and faculty study participants (Chapter 4). Using Carver et al., (1989) coping questions amalgamated with the phenomenology and naturalistic inquiry frameworks, cross-case study analysis as well as salivary cortisol testing to measure stress, the study will attempt to determine if the first-year college participants in the study exhibit characteristics of learned helplessness. The Learned Helplessness Paradigm and the Sociocultural Embeddedness Theory is used to investigate the phenomena of learned helplessness as it occurs in the classroom from both the student and faculty perspective. General findings revealed that student participants who were identified as optimistic were more likely to switch their majors or drop out of college (see Chapter 2). It was revealed that student participants experienced stress during predicted events but whether this led to learned helplessness and STEM attrition was ambiguous (see Chapter 3). Student interviews found a lack of feedback on exams, instructors’ heavy accents and rushed lectures as negative stressors and barriers toward learning. Faculty participants indicated rushed lectures was a result of overwhelming content requiring coverage in a single period or semester and a need for professional development to recognizing how to identify and address students experiencing learned helplessness in their classrooms.