High-stakes exams can put female students at a disadvantage

October 27, 2017 by Carrie Spector, Stanford University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Research has long shown that women who enter college intending to pursue a career in science abandon that path more frequently than their male peers, with many citing poor grades and large gateway classes as reasons for their declining interest. To what extent do these women fall behind because of the way science is taught and tested?

A new study of students in introductory biology courses finds that women overall performed worse than men on high-stakes exams but better on other types of assessments, such as lab work and written assignments. The study also shows that the anxiety of taking an exam has a more significant impact on women's grades than it does for men.

"It was striking," said Shima Salehi, a doctoral student at Stanford Graduate School of Education and one of the study's two lead authors. "We found that these types of exams disadvantage women because of the stronger effect that has on women's performance."

The study, co-led by Cissy Ballen and co-authored by Sehoya Cotner from the University of Minnesota, was published Oct. 19 in PLOS ONE.

The researchers collected data on 1,562 students in 10 large introductory biology course sections during fall 2016. (A majority of these students were women, typical for introductory biology classes.) They analyzed exam scores as well as students' performance on non-exam assessments like lab activities, discussion sections, written assignments and low-stakes quizzes.

On average, the researchers found, female students underperformed compared to males on biology course exams. They did better than males, however, on the non-exam assessments – a finding the study's authors said underscores the likelihood that high-pressure testing does not adequately capture a student's understanding.

"Other studies have shown that students' performance on high-stakes exams is not a good predictor for whether they're acquiring the skills that STEM professionals need," Salehi said. "And if psychological barriers prevent women from performing optimally on exams, it may be time to reconsider exams as a primary method for evaluating students' knowledge."

Impact of anxiety and interest

To better understand what might be affecting exam performance, the researchers focused on two factors: test anxiety and a lack of interest in the subject matter of the course. They surveyed a subset of the subject pool (286 students from three of the introductory sections) before final exams about their anxiety and their interest in the course content.

In the survey, students were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how well certain statements applied to them. Statements about anxiety, for example, included "I am so nervous during a test that I cannot remember facts that I have learned" and "When I take a test, I think about how poorly I am doing." Statements to assess students' interest included "I think that what I am learning in this course is useful for me to know" and "I think I will be able to use what I learn in this course in later studies."

The effect differed markedly between genders, the researchers found. Among males, neither self-reported test anxiety nor interest in the course correlated with final exam scores. But for female students – who, on average, reported higher anxiety and higher interest – final exam grades correlated with both factors. As the women's interest in the material increased, so did their exam scores, whereas greater test anxiety diminished their exam performance.

These findings, the researchers said, point to two possible tactics to help minimize the gender gap in test scores. First, past studies have found that replacing a few high-stakes exams with more frequent low-stakes testing – and using other types of assessments to lessen the significance of exams – can reduce the impact of test anxiety. Second, research indicates that more explicitly connecting the course material to students' lives can make it more relevant and interesting to them, "and by nurturing their interest in science," said Salehi, "we can create a buffer to shield women from the negative effects of test anxiety."

Adopting strategies for mitigating test and choosing materials and methods that enhance students' interest in science would make the science, technology, engineering and mathematics pathway more accessible for all students, Salehi said. "We want to figure out what kind of instructional methods will ensure that everyone can navigate successfully through these courses and have a wider range of career options."

Explore further: High achievers in competitive courses more likely to cheat on college exams

More information: Cissy J. Ballen et al. Exams disadvantage women in introductory biology, PLOS ONE (2017). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0186419

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BCL1
not rated yet Oct 27, 2017
Interesting article, but I wonder how the researchers determined that "greater test anxiety diminished their exam performance". I see how they could find a correlation, but how did they differentiate between cause and effect? Does greater test anxiety lead to low grades, or does being less prepared for a test cause low grades as well as heightened anxiety? I am not saying that the original conclusion was wrong, but I wonder how the experiment was conducted.
rhugh1066
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 27, 2017
Pressure getting to you? Welcome to the real world.

Ever more excuse-making. It's never going to end.
ReasonParty
3 / 5 (2) Oct 27, 2017
Alternative conclusion based on this nonsense, sexist "study" and childish conclusions:

Women are disadvantaged because they can't perform at the same level of men when placed in the same high-stress environment.

What a bunch of utter nonsense. If males were to have drafted this they would have been excoriated, and probably tarred and feathered.

These authors should be embarrassed by their conclusions.
CubicAdjunct747
1 / 5 (1) Oct 27, 2017
maybe if we make the tests pink with pretty flowers on it, females will do better.LOL
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 27, 2017
Well these tests disadvantage pretty much everybody but white guys dont they? And the chinese of course. Its like math...

"Lately, much of the discussion of race in math education has centered on the persistent underperformance of certain student groups, particularly black, Latino, and indigenous youth, and their disparate access to honors, gifted, and advanced mathematics courses. Yet a new paper disrupts those narratives by examining an unaddressed element of the equation—namely, the ways in which "whiteness" in math education reproduces racial advantages for white students and disadvantages historically marginalized students of color."

-Sometimes things jus' dont add up you know? Word.
schultzy2012
not rated yet Oct 29, 2017
Interestingly enough, universities have also decided that women lose any agency to make decisions or sign contracts the moment alcohol touches their lips. That snarky observation aside, the use of lab grades really seems pretty shallow to those of us who have taken science labs. Truth is, at the undergraduate level, science labs are things that students just try to get out of as quickly as possible most of the time. Seems to usually be a 60/40 split, with most just there, going through the motions and checking the boxes while trying to leave as quickly as possible. It is also often group work, with one or two people doing the actual work while the slackers get the benefit of the grades. I bet a lot of under-performing students have better lab averages than exam grades. Not the best measure of "alternative assessment methods." Oddly enough, the best lab group I was ever a part of included a young high school boy who was taking college classes. Everyone worked and participated.
schultzy2012
not rated yet Oct 29, 2017
Cont. from above... Conversely, the worst lab group I have ever suffered was in a physics lab with a group of 3 women who did not bother to learn the material, paid no attention to the professor at the beginning of each lab, and essentially left it to me to do the work and get an A for the group. That is completely anecdotal, and I have met plenty of male slackers, but speaks to just how uninformative lab grades can be. On the plus side, our university's latest matriculating class was 70% women, so it may not matter what guys do for much longer. Apparently inclusivity can only be achieved by selective exclusion.

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