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 New study: How does Europe become a leading player for software and IT services?
03.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI)

nachricht Reusable carbon nanotubes could be the water filter of the future, says RIT study
30.03.2017 | Rochester Institute of Technology

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: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Bare bones: Making bones transparent

27.04.2017 | Life Sciences

Study offers new theoretical approach to describing non-equilibrium phase transitions

27.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

From volcano's slope, NASA instrument looks sky high and to the future

27.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>