March 8, 2016
What is your class telling you?
Researchers uncover persistent gender performance gaps in their classes, but suggest classroom techniques to improve equity
Ben Wiggins, a faculty coordinator for instruction and lecturer in biology, knew many students in his introductory biology classes faced challenges that reached beyond the material being taught.
Something else, something quite powerful, was at play in the background, affecting the performance of female students. Work by Sarah Eddy, Sara Brownell and Mary Pat Wenderoth (Eddy et al. 2014)1, his colleagues in the Biology Education Research Group at the UW, had revealed an achievement gap that favors males as top performers, a phenomenon that could affect student self-confidence—particularly of females—thus influencing their persistence in their discipline. The researchers observed this gender achievement gap, in addition to a participation gap, even in classes where males were outnumbered by females three-to-two. Although their research focused on introductory biology classes, the researchers believe the dynamic may be at play in other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes and throughout the University as well.
Wiggins joined colleagues Dan Grunspan, a doctoral student in anthropology performing graduate work on social aspects of learning, and Eddy, then a post-doctoral student heavily involved in gender equity issues in the classroom, to further understand what was happening. Their research revealed another bias in who students perceive as knowledgeable in the class.
The research: How Wiggins and colleagues reached their conclusions
“Just because a student knows someone doesn’t mean they’re willing to say ‘I think they know the material…
To conduct social network analysis, Wiggins and colleagues began by asking students to list who in the class they predict will be a particularly strong student. “Just because a student knows someone doesn’t mean they’re willing to say ‘I think they know the material,’” notes Wiggins. No inequality was evident when the question was asked at the beginning of the quarter, but as the students answered the same question after each of four exams throughout the term, more males than females were listed as strong students—even in a course where females significantly outnumbered males.
Analysis of the data revealed that males were much more likely to nominate other males, while women were equally nominating males and females who were perceived to receive high grades and often speak up in class. “Females seem to nominate equitably based on who you would expect [from actual performance], whereas males over-nominate other males,” says Grunspan. This work has recently been published in PLOS ONE, and the larger team includes former Biology Education Postdoc Sara Brownell, UW Biology Principal Lecturer Alison Crowe and UW Anthropology Associate Professor Steven Goodreau2.
What instructors can do to minimize the gender gap
Despite the complexities of a classroom environment, the researchers say their data highlight broad issues that can largely be addressed through small tweaks in teaching methods.
Random calling helps address the common problem of implicit bias
Research on teaching has shown that gender biases commonly creep in to how instructors run their classes. “As an instructor, it’s likely that I don’t call on people in a gender-equitable way, even if I’m thinking about it, even if I have a lot of experience,” says Wiggins. “If you want to make classes more gender equitable, you have to take your own biases out of it.” Therefore, Wiggins regularly employs a method known as random call to improve equity in class participation. It is a method long used in teaching, and the work of Eddy, Brownell and Wenderoth (2014) confirmed that random calling rather than choosing students or asking for volunteers can also equalize the environment of the college classroom. “Where everybody is equally likely to be called on, everyone is more active. Students can’t avoid being called on by staying in the back,” Wiggins says. Involving more students beyond those who are naturally more inclined to be “outspoken”—a measure the researchers determined by asking instructors to rank students they recalled as speaking up most in class—can potentially influence the perceptions of other students about who is doing well in the class, one element affecting self-confidence. “But more importantly, it randomizes who is doing the talking,” notes Wiggins. “It may help to alleviate this prestige gap that we see.”
Random calling can offer more equitable opportunities for positive reinforcement
Women in particular can benefit from seeing more women speak up with the right answer or successfully handle being wrong—with no adverse effects on males in the classroom. As students transition into a career, beginning with an introductory biology class, women are particularly vulnerable to threats to their self-confidence, which is closely linked to persistence in STEM and is known to be heavily influenced by social interactions such as classroom participation. Getting an answer right or wrong in an introductory biology class may seem like a small thing to affect a student’s persistence in a chosen field, but, “It’s the day-to-day interactions that matter,” explains Eddy. “The minute someone defers to you, you feel like you’re an expert.”
Moving students from a “fixed mindset” about intelligence to a “growth mindset” may help
Persistence and confidence are also closely linked to what students believe about their ability to grow their intellectual capacity and learn from being wrong. Noted psychologist and Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has shown that simple interventions, such as asking people to reflect and write about their values and motivations, can change people’s mindset, and “rewire” the brain to a growth mindset. “One hypothesis is that perhaps more females are coming in with a fixed mindset while more males are coming in with a growth mindset,” says Grunspan. Moving forward, the UW researchers plan to test the effects of interventions on introductory biology classes.
Connecting the classroom environment to the outside world
Digging deeper into the research revealed consistent gender gaps in both student perception and achievement, even when controlling for student grades coming into the class. “By the end of your college career, you may have seen this pattern happen 20 or 30 times, and those same people you see in all your classes may very easily be doing hiring or firing later,” says Wiggins.
As Wiggins, Grunspan and Eddy realized they were seeing evidence of invisible but powerful forces affecting their students, they began to understand how persistent negative stereotypes can be. “We tend to think our classrooms are distinct from society, but the processes from our larger society are being brought into the classroom. Unless we can actively disrupt them, it will continue,” says Eddy.
Eddy joins Wiggins and Grunspan in viewing classroom data as an important tool to interrupt the negative processes they observed. “Professors typically have the ability to look back at numbers and performance in a class. Start prying a little deeper and really assess what’s going on in each classroom,” advises Grunspan. If the data suggest these common problems are affecting the performance of your students, consider ways you can make space in your classroom for equitable opportunities and inclusion. “As instructors, that’s where we have leverage,” says Wiggins. “We want to make sure we run the class in a way that engages everyone, and this is just one example of changing our teaching to serve diverse students.”
Get more details
Find out how Ben Wiggins incorporates random calling into his classroom.
“If you want to make classes more gender equitable, you have to take your own biases out of it.”
– Ben Wiggins
“We tend to think our classrooms are distinct from society, but the processes from our larger society are being brought into the classroom.”
– Sarah Eddy
1Eddy, Sarah L., Sara E. Brownell, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Gender gaps in achievement and participation in multiple introductory biology classrooms.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 13.3 (2014): 478-492.
2Grunspan, Daniel Z., Sarah L. Eddy, Sara E. Brownell, Benjamin L. Wiggins, Alison J. Crowe and Steven M. Goodreau. “Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms” PLOS ONE February 10, 2016, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0148405