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Kim Charmatz and Lindsay Crawford, University of Southern Maine

Lindsay Crawford.jpgKim Charmatz.jpgScience, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) major requirements are unique; advising students in these fields requires unique approaches, supports, and resources. Majors in these disciplines can include traditional majors such as biology, chemistry, engineering, environmental science, physics, and math, and can also include majors such as nursing, health sciences, and athletic training. In this article, the focus is on students in the natural sciences, engineering, and technology majors.

STEM students have curriculum requirements that are highly sequential, time intensive, and interdisciplinary. There are high expectations for STEM students to excel in multiple disciplines including different fields in the sciences, high-level math courses, writing, and critical thinking skills. Students who are looking to graduate in the traditional four years in a STEM-related discipline must enter the major with a strong background in math and science. The conversations with students in these disciplines vary and change when advisors have realistic discussions with them about these expectations and what they will need to accomplish to succeed. 

Advising students in STEM majors is grounded in the NACADA Core Competencies (NACADA, 2017) in some of the following ways: 

  • Conceptual: understanding advising theories relevant to the unique nature of STEM majors (e.g. inquiry-based learning in advising [Bernold, 2007])
  • Informational: understanding the interdisciplinary and sequential degree requirements of STEM majors
  • Relational: facilitating students’ development of goals and problem solving; developing supportive relationships with students that encourage them to take ownership of their STEM educational path

Strategies for STEM Students

The nature of working with early-career STEM students often requires an intrusive advising approach with multiple meetings during their first semesters (Rodgers et al., 2014). Applying an inquiry-based learning approach in these meetings gives students the opportunity to help build and understand their pathway while also introducing responsibility as a key component to taking ownership of their education (Bernold, 2007). The following are some strategies that can be incorporated into any advisors’ practice when working with STEM students.

Managing Expectations. Students in STEM disciplines have different expectations regarding the work required to complete their chosen field of study. Advisors can start the conversation by asking what interests them about their major and their expectations for their major coursework. This can lead naturally to talking about the high expectations of STEM majors, upper-level math requirements, strict sequencing of courses, and the transition from high school-/community college-level academic expectations to the rigor required at the four-year institution.

Students also have different expectations about their own abilities related to work in the STEM fields or their self-efficacy in regards to the work that is expected of them. For example, a student who places into a math course below the course recommended for the traditional four-year plan may express feelings of low self-efficacy in an advising meeting. One approach to addressing low self-efficacy is working with the student on setting goals and creating an action plan to achieve them.

Creating Action Plans and Goal Setting. For the STEM major, setting goals and creating action plans are especially important for students’ success and path to meeting their graduation goals (Steele, 2008).  Several strategies can help in setting realistic timelines and creating a graduation plan:

  • Presenting pre-STEM courses as building blocks for preparing students for their major coursework. This includes strengthening math and writing skills before beginning a science or upper-level math sequence of courses. 
  • Including summer or winter courses in their plan. Planning for terms in addition to traditional fall and spring semesters can allow students to catch up in their sequence of courses and has the potential to improve their overall graduation timeline. It is helpful to provide students with resources on learning strategies for taking a course in an accelerated or shortened format. 
  • Adding supplemental semesters to their plan, if needed. If courses are not available or possible over accelerated terms, having a realistic conversation with students about adding additional semesters to their plan is important early on when meeting with students. 

Developing Faculty Connections. Encouraging students to meet early and often with their faculty is incredibly important to motivate students in STEM majors as well as help them succeed in their chosen discipline. In addition to being able to talk about the major and career goals with an expert in the field, they can connect with their faculty on how to be successful in their specific classes. Advisors can help connect students with their faculty by showing them how to find their office hours, maintain proper email etiquette when communicating online, and brainstorming questions to ask faculty. At the University of Southern Maine, there is a partnership advising model, and staff advisors frequently work together with faculty advisors on students’ academic goals.

Learning Strategies for STEM Students

STEM students, particularly those who are underprepared, may struggle with the rigor required for their major coursework. The following strategies are important for students to keep in mind:

Time Management. One important strategy for students who are managing a high-credit course load is time management. This can be a struggle for any student, but is important especially for students in majors with restrictive curriculums. Talking through strategies and planning not only a student’s weekly schedule but entire semester schedule is very important to success. There are multiple hands-on strategies, like creating a weekly or monthly calendar as well as multiple free smartphone and desktop apps that can help keep track not only of scheduling, but also assignment due dates, task or to-do lists, and professors’ contact information all in one place (e.g. iStudiezPro [2009]).

Reading STEM Textbooks and Note-Taking Strategies. SQ3R Method  is a great method for utilizing an active, inquiry-based approach to reading textbooks and comprehension (University of Southern Maine, n.d. & Robinson, 1978). The SQ3R Method encourages students to survey (review chapter titles, headings, diagrams, etc.), write down initial questions that may pop up, and then read the chapter, recite (or summarize), and review what is learned. This encourages the student to retain what they have learned and process the material before moving on to the next section.

The T-Method note-taking strategy is a great way to take notes for STEM-specific courses (Sellers et al., 2015). The student can write the example equation on one side of the page and personal note/ explanation to help their personal understanding and/or any questions they have regarding the problem. Other methods include the Cornell Method (Pauk, 1984), mind-mapping, and outlining.

Study and Test-Taking Strategies. Supporting students’ awareness of metacognition can be a good first approach to study and test-taking strategies. Metacognition is a reflective technique that includes thinking about one’s thinking or learning process. Metacognition is also connected to inquiry-based learning through asking questions about your understanding of course material; this can identify gaps in understanding, and help with test preparation (The Learning Center, n.d.).

In addition, there are many online resources that provide study and test-taking strategies helpful to students in STEM majors. Tamarkin et al. (2010) wrote an online free Guidebook for Studying and Learning in STEM. The guidebook includes practical strategies students can implement such as in-class, reading, studying, and test-taking techniques. 

Peer Support Networks. Studying in groups can help STEM students support each other in a learning environment and “promotes conceptual understanding and reasoning ability” (Cracolice & Deming, 2005). Study groups encourage teaching and learning from other students, help improve confidence in material, and give students a forum outside of the classroom to ask each other questions and prepare for upcoming exams. Meeting regularly also helps to keep students accountable and gives a structured environment to help supplement individual studying time.

Exploring Alternative Majors and Careers

For some students, their expectation of the STEM major they originally declared is different from the realistic curriculum of the major. For these students, exploring alternative majors and careers can be an important discussion to have with them (Steele, 2008). The following are some steps that advisors can take in their meetings:

  • Continue to revisit long term goals—and different majors or avenues for achieving those goals
  • Work with other offices and resources on campus such as the Career Center
  • Review career-related and personality assessments such as StrengthsQuest, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, O*NET Interest Profiler, and the Holland Code to also revisit long range plans and majors that fit the student’s interests and strengths
  • Review and compare similar majors to the student’s original declared major—for example, health science vs. biology, environmental planning & policy vs. environmental science, information technology vs. computer science

In addition to the above strategies, advisors can also connect students to offices outside of advising for additional support.  

Some possible resources include:

  • Subject-based tutoring
  • Math and writing center
  • Learning assistants program
  • Career center/services
  • Peer advising
  • Student organizations in STEM areas
  • TRIO academic support
  • Health and counseling center
  • Disability services
  • Jobs for America’s graduates
  • Prior learning and assessment

Kim Charmatz
Academic Advisor, Advising
University of Southern Maine
[email protected] 

Lindsay Crawford
Academic Advisor, Advising
University of Southern Maine
[email protected]


Academic Gains through Improved Learning Effectiveness (AGILE), University of Southern Maine (n.d.). Retrieved from https://usm.maine.edu/agile

Bernold, L. E. (2007).  Preparedness of engineering freshman to inquiry-based learning. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 133(2), 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)1052-3928(2007)133:2(99)

Cracolice, M., & Deming, J. (2005, December 20). Peer-led team learning: Promoting conceptual understanding and reasoning ability. [Conference Paper].Winter 2005 CONFCHEM Online Conference: Trends and New Ideas in Chemical Education, Online.

iStudiez Team. (2009). iStudiez Pro. https://istudentpro.com/

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

Pauk, W. (1984). How to study in college (3rd ed.). Houghton Mifflin

Robinson, F. P. (1978). Effective study (6th ed.). Harper & Row.

Rodgers, K., Blunt, S., & Trible, L. (2014). A real PLUSS: an intrusive advising program for underprepared STEM students. NACADA Journal, 34(1), 35–42. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-13-002

Sellers, D., Dochen, C. W., & Hodges, R. (2015). Academic transformation: The road to college success (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.

Steele, M. (2008, September). The challenges of advising science, technology, engineering and mathematics students. Academic Advising Today, 31(3). https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/The-Challenges-of-Advising-Science-Technology-Engineering-and-Mathematics-Students.aspx 

Tamarkin, D. A., Moriarty, M. A., & Hill, V. A. (2010). Guidebook for studying and learning in STEM. STCC Foundation Press. https://olemiss.edu/programs/biobootcamp/GuidebookSTEM%20Learning%20Student.pdf

The Learning Center. (n.d.). Studying for STEM. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://learningcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/studying-for-stem/

Cite this article using APA style as: Charmatz, K., & Crawford, L. (2020, March). Supporting early-career STEM students. Academic Advising Today, 43(1). [insert url here]

Posted in: 2020 March 43:1


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