Gender gap in physics exams reduced by simple writing exercises, study says

Gender gap in physics exams reduced by simple writing exercises, says CU-Boulder study
Associate Professor Noah Finkelstein teaches a CU-Boulder physics class. Like most courses in physics at CU and elsewhere, the students are predominantly male, and researchers observe a "gender gap" in test scores that is not fully attributable to preparation and aptitude. The CU-Boulder team found that a simple writing exercise can significantly reduce the gender gap. Credit: Noah Larsen

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 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 about 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 , 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."

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Nov 25, 2010
My daughter is majoring in chem and minoring in physics and is one of the top students thinks this is bunk.

Nov 25, 2010
Here's an interesting thought: to strive for equality across the board, we should also inject math and hard facts into creative writing disciplines, thereby benefitting further from the hybridization.

However, I think that would dilute the core strengths of that class, just as I think a concretizing of abstract reasoning would affect things here.

Seriously, is this article claiming that women cannot adapt their thinking? That the world must be custom-built according to them before they succeed? My lady friends are insulted, and think those "other girls" were just lazy bums.

Nov 25, 2010
Gender gap in physics exams could probably be further reduced by providing answers in advance.

Maybe somebody should write paper on that :)

Nov 26, 2010
Seriously, is this article claiming that women cannot adapt their thinking? That the world must be custom-built according to them before they succeed?

I think this artical is about using values affirmation as a means of alowing women to cope with the stereotype that men are better at physics. It has nothing to do with altering the course material, or methodology itself.

Nov 26, 2010
seriously what the fuck is this? Put some literature and musical questions in the physics exams will make marks more even? The problem is that literature and music are NOT physics. What the hell seriously

Nov 26, 2010
My daughter loves chemestry and physics. She never needed affermation from a teacher saying that girls can go into this field of study. She thinks treat both boys and girls the same.

Nov 26, 2010
Quite a few people are getting all upset over their own misunderstanding of this study.

Read what LivaN wrote, then reread this article. If you're still offended, the problem is entirely in your head.

Nov 27, 2010
The situation with girls is similar to stance of many trolls regarding aether model: they could understand it easily, but they're refusing to do so, because it would violate their social role. With compare to girls, the social role of trolls is merely a fictitious and it has no background in their phenotype and/or physiology.

Nov 27, 2010
Keep in mind that this is a single study conducted at a single university. There is little to no vigor with these kind of educational research studies. Does it matter that these women are American, Chinese, etc.? I think there should be more investment towards efforts to prevent the apparent gender gap before students are in college.

Nov 27, 2010
Seems that whenever you can remove empiricism and can inject emotional judgement suddenly disparity starts to fade... thats more a sign of changing outcomes by other means rather than producing equally competent people... but hey, we have been abandoning empiricism, for a fake one and then wondering why we have fallen behind compared to the rest of the world too stupid to be genius enough to copy us to ruin

Nov 27, 2010
We forget about emmy noether, becuase she is not a feminist, did it on her own, and einstein credited her.

and we try to remember a revisioned M einstein that these same politicizers think did the work...

in the story of emmy is all you need to know about the validity of women in science (super symetry was not slouch math), and the validity of the bs new methods (which are the old methods of the soviets), in erasing empirical reality in favor of a contrived and pronounces disfunctional one that pretends to meet an aesthetic set by some on the top.

It was the Nazis who first used disparate impact arguments to prove the jews were cheating (stating they owned more busineses disproportionately, and banks, and educational awards. which is what you would expect if they were smarter. equality demands that such become cheaters) and that the others were underrepresented. for the same excuse to have the power to set things right.

Nov 27, 2010
..jews were cheating ...which is what you would expect if they were smarter. equality demands that such become cheaters...
Actually there is only very subtle/fuzzy boundary between cheating and outsmarting the others. This indeed doesn't imply, Jews should be used as a biofuel or for soap production by their very nature.

Nov 27, 2010
they were NOT cheating, which is the point..
i figured that i didnt have to state taht the nazis were wrong, and so the idea they came up with was wrong... we renamed it... but that dont make it right either.

there is NO fuzzy boundary...there is just some people who understand the rules and what they allow better and dont add rules and such that are not there...

a venture capitalist plays this very letter of the law thing... while most people dont even bother to learnt he rules, and figure seat of the pants flying and guessing from moral intuition is the way to go.

no real fuzzy boundary there... and if there was, then people would stop going to them for business... unless compelled.

Nov 27, 2010
The positive benifit from negative actions on them weeded out the less intelligent. AS it did with the Chinese... really arbitrarily oppress people and they will eventually be smarter than you as your actions favor the smarter over the less smart...

they did not cheat their way to nobel prizes, or other things we should be thankful for...

and the public was tricked by the same false argument and aesthetic copied to get the same end in obtaining power to fulfill marx's prophcies that keep failing

disparate impact arguments are only there to convince people to give total power to force fixing the real numbers generated by false meaning and attrubution

Nov 27, 2010
redistribution of wealth solves the problem of the masses increase of intelligence until they are smart enough again to be free...

without it, failing to PROmote reGRESSIVE policies, will not let you RULE for a long long time through many generations, as eventually your benifits rot your children, and the weeding and winnowing refines the less benefited... this is why darwin is so key to despots, as it solves the intelligence question in permanent aristocracy, which confounded old aristocracies who didnt know about adaptation to pressures.

dynasty is always the goal... (as its the only think that has meaning in a reality with no purpose other than self promotion)

Nov 27, 2010
Only you, ArtflDgr, could turn a simple study like this into a reason to rant and call liberals nazis. You deserve a gold medal in gymnastics for the contortions evidenced in this thread. My hat is off to you o/

Anyone who is offended by this is showing their true misogynist nature. Scores of females were increased with a simple exercise that had ZERO significant impact on men. Are you really that upset by women doing well on physics tests? Do you not comprehend that the physics tests were identical... only with a difference in pre-test questions designed to make women feel a little better about themselves and combat stereotypes?

Nov 27, 2010
..they were NOT cheating, which is the point ... .dynasty is always the goal...
Well - endogamy, organizations with secret goals, spreading of misinformations, etc... Do you know history of Rotschild dynasty?

Nov 28, 2010
The real gender gap is that more girls are attending college than boys.

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