Gender Achievement Gaps in Science and Maths
I read this paper from Science, Nov. 2010, about how female college students who are Physics majors can benefit by what the authors term ‘Values Affirmation’. They make the participants write brief essays about ‘values’ that the students consider important to themselves, once at the beginning of the (15 week long) semester and once at the end of
the semester five weeks.
The underlying assumption in the study is, of course, that there is no ‘reason’ that female students have to perform any poorer because they happen to be female. The authors argue that female students feel the burden of their stereotype – an effect also seen in black students, for example: black students feel their performance will be used to judge their community. If putting the female students at ease is possible, therefore, one would expect that this will help their grades.
The authors say the study is randomised and double-blind. Neither the teacher nor the teaching assistants knew which students got either the ‘actual medicine’ or the control, which was to write about values important to somebody else. I don’t know if this is important or even enforceable. (The students were told the essays were part of the course evaluation, as far as I can tell. How do you stop people from talking about the exam they just wrote outside class?)
In any case, the results of the study seem impressive. Female students who were asked to write about values that were important to them did better in the course, and got better scores on a standardised test of conceptual physics. (Incidentally, men who were asked to write about values that were important to them did worse than the control group. Go figure.)
The study has gone to extraordinary trouble in some aspects. The TAs administering tests to students were given scripted answers to possible questions that students might ask, for example. A la at your friendly neighbourhood call-centre. I do have some cribs with the study, though.
I’ve already mentioned my first crib about whether the study is truly double-blind. Second, and this might seem like a stretch, the essays were given as part of the course – the students were told that effective communication was important in science. I don’t think it’s unthinkable that writing about something that’s important to you is easier than writing about why something that isn’t important to you might be important to somebody else. Is it possible that people who were asked, twice, to write about somebody else got freaked out that they’d (predictably) done the essays badly and did worse in the actual course because of this?
Another possible question that may be asked is that if all it takes to get female students to do better is to have them talk about their values, this should already have happened when colleges implemented other programmes to help female students. The authors say, for example, that special attention was paid to female students and it didn’t seem to do too much.
Miyake A, Kost-Smith LE, Finkelstein ND, Pollock SJ, Cohen GL, & Ito TA (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: a classroom study of values affirmation. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330 (6008), 1234-7 PMID: 21109670