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Why Do Students Drop Out?

Why Do Students Drop Out?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Victoria Johnson Duke University student Victoria Johnson moved a lot when growing up. Fortunately, wherever she went, there were gifted programs like the Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP) that offered exceptional students opportunities.

Her first experience with these programs was when she enrolled in a class sponsored by Duke TIP in Wisconsin during middle school. Learning about King Arthur’s court, she credits the experience with jumpstarting her interests in motivation, giftedness, and education.

As a sophomore majoring in psychology and economics at Duke, the Education and Human Development Bass Connections theme seemed a natural fit for Johnson’s academic interests. This year, she’s a member of the team working with SSRI Research Scholar Ann Brewster to explore why Durham public school students drop out of high school.

It’s a deep dive into research about motivation, opportunity, and education that continues the work of last year’s Bass Connections team.

“It’s not always particularly clear how to start your research, so I thought this was a good opportunity for getting into these research areas,” Johnson said.

Research Activities On and Off Campus

Johnson’s work with Bass Connections isn’t her only research experience at Duke. She’s also worked with the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Duke TIP in her time on campus.

During her freshman year, Johnson began working with the Citizenship Lab at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke. The program develops mechanisms for enhancing refugee students’ civic participation with a focus on high school youth in Durham County. Johnson has continued her work with the program this year as well.

“Just interacting with those high schoolers every week, you get to see so many other life views and perspectives that you never have before,” she said. “It’s also another group that’s vulnerable to a lot of these drop out issues, so we’re dealing with that every day. They just have so many obstacles in their way.”

Johnson also serves as the Jacqueline Anne Morris Research Scholar at Duke TIP where she researches giftedness.

“It’s this underlying theme of what motivates people that really interests me,” she said.

Contributing to the Team’s Process

Right now, the Bass Connections team is reviewing the current literature on factors that lead students to drop out. Soon, the team will be developing questions and then interviewing middle school students at a number of the public schools in Durham to determine the students’ attitudes and perspectives.

It’s an open-ended part of their process where the undergraduates are urged to provide their input on question development, school selection, and other research design details.

“[Brewster] is very encouraging and makes everyone feel like they can and should contribute,” Johnson said. “She really wants to teach us and for us to learn how to do this research so we can then do it later on.”

The team offers Johnson an opportunity to work closely with Duke researchers and connect the different research interests with her majors at Duke.

“Psychology plays a large role in this project” Johnson said. “My psychology background helps me put myself in [the students’] shoes and understand their behavior. Economics helps, of course, with gathering data and trying to fit the data into a larger framework.”

Bridging Her Experiences

The Bass Connections team’s work provides a research experience unlike her others at Duke. Combining work with students in schools and collaborative research with Duke students and scholars, Bass Connections bridges her desire to conduct publishable research and work directly with students in need of additional support.

“With the Citizenship Lab, you’re with the students every single week, whereas with Duke TIP I never see the students I’m analyzing the data for,” Johnson said. “So this is more of the middle of those two, where you’re going to be able to interact with the students, but you’re doing all this research beforehand. I like the fact that it’s in the middle and exposing me to all the different ways you can do research.


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