Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Gender gap in physics exams reduced by simple writing exercises

26.11.2010
Women are underrepresented and on average perform more poorly than men in introductory physics. But a recent study finds that this gap arises predominantly from differential preparation prior to college and psychological factors, rather than differences in ability.

And the effects of these psychological factors can be largely overcome with a brief writing exercise focusing on important values, such as friends and family, learning or even music. This simple "values affirmation" writing exercise generally raised women's course grades from the "C" to "B" range, a study led by University of Colorado at Boulder researchers has found.

These self-affirming essays, the researchers suggest, assuaged women's stress about being seen in light of negative stereotypes about women in science. Besides getting better grades, the women also showed greater mastery over the conceptual material, the team found.

Further, the positive effects of values affirmation are most pronounced among women who tended to believe in the stereotype that men are better than women at physics.

Those are key findings of a study published in the Nov. 26 edition of Science. Five of the study's authors are at CU-Boulder and one is a former CU researcher now at Stanford University.

"I just wasn't expecting this kind of finding," said Akira Miyake, a CU-Boulder professor of psychology and neuroscience and lead author on the Science paper. As Miyake noted, the students in the study were all majors in so-called STEM disciplines -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

"They're already interested in these things and are highly motivated to do well in that course," he said. "It still amazes me that this writing exercise has such positive influences."

Miyake led the team of researchers -- three from psychology and three from physics -- who applied recent psychological research on "identity threat" to women in a challenging physics course.

Tiffany Ito, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and co-author of the study, notes that the common expectation that men do better in physics than do women is an "identity threat" that can undermine women's ability to reach their full potential.

Women are aware of the stereotype and might worry that their performance in a physics class will confirm the stereotype.

"That creates some fear, stress and anxiety," Miyake said. "It's especially bad during exams" when the stakes are high and they know they are being evaluated. The anxiety might distract women from the course material, he said.

Women, who constitute a minority of physics students, also are affected by external cues, Ito added. "Those women are sitting in a class consisting of predominantly men, and they might wonder if the men buy into the stereotype and think they're better at physics."

However, "The research shows that if we affirm people's self integrity, you buffer them from other threats," Ito said.

Geoffrey Cohen, a co-author of the study and a former CU psychologist, has studied this effect among ethnic minorities in middle schools. Cohen, now a professor in Stanford University's School of Education and the department of psychology as well as a courtesy professor at the Graduate School of Business, said the affirmation exercises can be powerful.

As Cohen explains, a values-affirmation exercise might prompt thoughts such as these: " 'In spite of all the adversity in my environment, here is what I care about. Here's what gives me my internal compass. Here is what I stand for.' And that can be alleviating in a stressful situation." What is not known, the psychologists emphasize, is exactly how values-affirmation exercises work or whether they will work in other physics or STEM courses.

The physicists also note that this research narrowed but did not eliminate the gender gap. Women generally enter college less prepared for college physics courses than men.

Lauren Kost-Smith, a co-author and a physics graduate student who has won the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in STEM Education, has done several studies of the gender gap in physics. She noted that for six or seven semesters, CU women completing conceptual-mastery tests in physics did consistently worse than did men, but factors such as prior course work and demonstrated aptitude did not fully account for the difference.

In CU's randomized double-blind experiment, 399 students, including 283 men and 116 women, were randomly assigned writing assignments that either affirmed their values or did not. Students completed the writing exercises twice, in the first week of the semester and during the week preceding the first mid-term exam.

Students in the "affirmation group" were given a list of 12 values, such as "relationships with friends and family" or "learning or gaining knowledge," and were asked to write about the values most important to them.

The remaining students in the "control" group were asked to pick values on the list that were least important to them and to write about why those values might be important to other people.

"Thus, both groups wrote about values and their importance, but the exercise was self-relevant only for the affirmation group," the authors write.

Additionally, the team measured how much each student embraced the gender stereotype. As part of an online survey given early in the semester, students were asked to rank their agreement (from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree") with this statement: "According to my own personal beliefs, I expect men to generally do better in physics than women."

Among the women who more strongly endorsed the stereotype, women in the affirmation group obtained higher course grades and showed better conceptual mastery of physics than women in the control group who also agreed with the statement.

Men's grades and conceptual mastery were not significantly affected by the values-affirmation exercise.

Steven Pollock, professor of physics and a CU President's Teaching Scholar, noted that the study funded by the National Science Foundation is a "small piece" of a large puzzle, and he and his colleagues stressed that the results are no silver bullet in STEM education.

While concurring, Noah Finkelstein, a co-author and associate professor in physics, added, "This is a really exciting finding. It bears further exploration. These results hold significant promise for addressing differential performance and the significant disparity of recruitment and retention of women in STEM disciplines."

Akira Miyake | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.colorado.edu

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Real-time feedback helps save energy and water
08.02.2017 | Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg

nachricht The Great Unknown: Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescents
19.01.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Breakthrough with a chain of gold atoms

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

Im Focus: DNA repair: a new letter in the cell alphabet

Results reveal how discoveries may be hidden in scientific “blind spots”

Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...

Im Focus: Dresdner scientists print tomorrow’s world

The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.

The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...

Im Focus: Mimicking nature's cellular architectures via 3-D printing

Research offers new level of control over the structure of 3-D printed materials

Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...

Im Focus: Three Magnetic States for Each Hole

Nanometer-scale magnetic perforated grids could create new possibilities for computing. Together with international colleagues, scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have shown how a cobalt grid can be reliably programmed at room temperature. In addition they discovered that for every hole ("antidot") three magnetic states can be configured. The results have been published in the journal "Scientific Reports".

Physicist Dr. Rantej Bali from the HZDR, together with scientists from Singapore and Australia, designed a special grid structure in a thin layer of cobalt in...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Booth and panel discussion – The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting

13.02.2017 | Event News

Complex Loading versus Hidden Reserves

10.02.2017 | Event News

International Conference on Crystal Growth in Freiburg

09.02.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Impacts of mass coral die-off on Indian Ocean reefs revealed

21.02.2017 | Earth Sciences

Novel breast tomosynthesis technique reduces screening recall rate

21.02.2017 | Medical Engineering

Use your Voice – and Smart Homes will “LISTEN”

21.02.2017 | Trade Fair News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>