‘I think I can’ slims physics gender gap

U. COLORADO (US) — A ‘values affirmation’ writing exercise largely overcomes a gap in which women perform more poorly than men in college level introductory physics.

The gap—which can be blamed on lack of preparation and not ability—was greatly reduced when women wrote essays on important values, including friends and family, learning, or music, according to a new study.

The essays appear to assuage women’s stress about being seen in light of negative stereotypes about women in science. Besides getting better grades—in most cases raising from a ‘C’ to a ‘B’—the women also show greater mastery over the conceptual material.

Also, the positive effects of values affirmation are most pronounced among women who tend to believe in the stereotype that men are better than women at physics.

Students in the study, published in the journal Science, were all majors in so-called STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“I just wasn’t expecting this kind of finding,” says Akira Miyake, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado.

“They’re already interested in these things and are highly motivated to do well in that course,” he says. “It still amazes me that this writing exercise has such positive influences.”

Tiffany Ito, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience notes that the common expectation that men do better in physics than 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 says. “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.

Women, who constitute a minority of physics students, also are affected by external cues, Ito adds.

“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.

“The research shows that if we affirm people’s self-integrity, you buffer them from other threats.”

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.

Researchers note 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 study says.

How much each student embraced the gender stereotype was also measured. 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.

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