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Women Gush and Grades Go Up

Talking about their values could help women do better in physics courses according to a joint study by the University of Colorado and Stanford University.

I remember my first day of Physics II in college. I sat near the back of the room, one of two or three girls in a classroom full of men led by the stereotypical beard-adorned professor. To call that atmosphere intimidating would be an understatement.

Recent research conducted at the University of Colorado (C.U.) worked to tackle that very anxiety felt by women studying male-dominated subjects, like science, technology, engineering and math, where there's a stereotype that men outperform women.

"Women are affected by the stereotype threat because of the idea that men generally do better than women in physics," Akira Miyake, professor of psychology at C.U. and co-author of the research paper, said.

Six C.U. researchers, half physicists and half psychologists, incorporated writing exercises into an entry-level physics course required for students working on science degrees (as opposed to liberal arts majors, for example).

Three-hundred ninety nine students were given writing assignments twice in the semester, once during the first week of class and again during the fourth week of class, right before their first mid-term exams.

One group of students was asked to choose from a list of 12 or so values, like relationships with family and friends or learning and gaining knowledge, and spend 15 minutes writing about why those values are important to them. Another control group was given the same list of values and asked to choose two or three that were not important to them and explain why others might see them as important.

For women in the values affirmation group - the group that explained why several values were important to them - there was a discernible improvement in grades both on in-class exams and on an end-of-term national standardized test. In that group, 41 percent of the women earned C's while 37 percent earned B's. Compared to the control group, where 56 percent of the women earned C's and 23 percent got B's, the improvement was obvious. (There was no improvement shown among women scoring A's.)

The researchers believe that having women take time to affirm their abilities and self-worth in a classroom environment that is known for breeding anxiety helped them to feel more reassured at the start of the course, an attitude that likely snowballed for the remainder of the semester. The students repeated the exercise as a homework assignment before their first exam. It might have helped them do better on the exam, resulting in good grades early in the semester and better overall grades by the end of the term.

The women were also given a survey that asked them whether they believed in the stereotype that men do better in physics than women. For women who didn't believe in the stereotype, there was no real difference. Women who did believe in the stereotype, however, showed the greatest improvement. Additionally, there was no difference in the men's grades as a result of the exercise, leading the researchers to believe that it's all about the stereotype.

Miyake said the group intends to do more research to see whether women studying in other male-dominated fields would respond similarly.

"The natural question," he said, is "whether this works in other teaching situations." Since the writing exercise was unrelated to physics, the team believes the effects could be repeated in other areas where women might feel intimidated. Miyake also said he believes that if the exercise proves effective enough to be implemented, it should be done even earlier, perhaps in high school or middle school when women are first introduced to physics.

Though the researchers have yet to replicate their study and fully digest how these exercises affected students' grades, one thing that is immediately apparent is instructors must consider psychological factors, including a student's beliefs and academic history, in addition to material when engaging students.

"It's important that we as a community of physicists, teachers and instructors pay attention to things that are broader than just content," Noah Finkelstein, associate professor of physics at C.U. and another co-author of the paper, said.


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