How a 15-minute writing exercise closed the performance gap between men and women in a physics class

by Jess McCabe // 26 November 2010, 10:49

Tags: physics, science, stereotype threat

A small experiment at the University of Colorado was able to close the gap in performance between men and women taking an introduction to physics class - by means of a writing test wholly unrelated to science.

Discover reports on the experiment by researcher Akira Miyake, and the whole post is worth reading. However, to summarise: men taking the university physics class typically did better than women taking the same class. Meanwhile, women are generally underrepresented in physics. (The UKRC, which advocates for gender equality in science, engineering and technology, produces a thorough annual report on the situation in the UK.)

Miyake took 283 men and 116 women who were taking the class and divided them into two groups. The first group took a short, 15-minute writing exercise at the start of the course, where they picked two of the values most important to them, and wrote about why they were important to them.

The second group wrote about two of the values least important to them - and why they might be important to other people.

Neither the groups nor the teaching assistants that led the exercise knew what the point of the experiment was - instead, they were told it was about improving writing skills.

The task worked. During the rest of the semester, the students sat for four exams that made up most of their final grade. Among the control group, who wrote about other people’s values, men outperformed women by an average of ten percentage points. But among the students who affirmed their own values, the gender gap largely disappeared. Their final grades reflected this shrunken divide: if the women took Miyake’s exercise, far more got Bs and far fewer got Cs.

Miyake also gave the students a standard test called the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), which checks their understanding of basic physics concepts. In Miyake’s control group, the men outscored the women, as they usually do. But the women who wrote about their values closed the gap entirely.

Here's the graph showing the impact on test scores:

closinggap.jpg

Impressive stuff. This is actually a replication of a similar experiment which succeeded in boosting the grades of black school students.

The experiment hinges on "stereotype threat", Discover explains: women are expected to be worse at science, and simply the awareness of this stereotype is enough to decrease their performance. The writing exercise boosted the students' self-worth and confidence, counteracting the effects of the stereotype.

Discover notes:

Miyake’s achievement is doubly impressive because the physics course had already tried to introduce ways of reducing the gender gap, including extra tutorials. But all of these methods involved more of the same - more teaching, or more problems to solve. Miyake’s exercise, by contrast, had nothing whatsoever to do with physics; it worked because it improved the environment in which women learn physics.

Via Alice Taylor

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 26 November 2010 at 12:32

Neatly debunks claims that we are all 'individuals' wherein societal constraints supposedly have no impact whatsoever on how women and girls perceive themselves.

A similar experiment was conducted with young women who were studying maths. One group were told women aren't as capable at maths as males and what happened? Why when these women undertook exam on maths - the failure rate was very high. Yet when another group of young women studying maths were told women excel at maths what happened? Why when same women undertook maths exam the pass rate was very high.

But no way does misogyny operate to dinimish women's expertise and skills does it? It is all down to individualism and women being told 'you are to blame for your failure to comprehend science unlike men of course who are innately predisposed to understand science and maths!'

Claire // Posted 26 November 2010 at 13:51

Now all I have to do is decide how to use this knowledge to benefit my Physics-studying little sister.. I can't just link her in case it discourages her, but will she listen if I say "reaffirm yourself before exams!"?

Hrrrm. Must plan.

Jess McCabe // Posted 26 November 2010 at 13:58

@Claire It's hard to know, isn't it? Maybe talk to her about how awesome she is?!

Ideally we could just stop people perpetuating the stereotypes in the first place. *dreams*

Lindsey // Posted 26 November 2010 at 14:10

@Claire and Jess

Similar experiments are mentioned in "Delusions of Gender" in which test students are given articles to read about women's successes. So any time you see articles about successful women scientists, potential role models or icons in history be sure to share them! Reinforcing the idea that other women can do it beats off the stereotype that women suck at science.

Jess McCabe // Posted 26 November 2010 at 14:48

@Lindsey In that case, here is a link to a beautiful calender celebrating women's contributions to astronomy.

Kristel // Posted 26 November 2010 at 16:22

Just want to say that this is so interesting! And also that lately on the F-Word there are some FANTASTIC, fascinating, helpful and really inspiring posts. Esp. the one about Emily Wilding Davidson. I am loving them.
Thank you, thank you!

Claire // Posted 26 November 2010 at 16:29

Thanks you two, I will do both! :]

icicle // Posted 26 November 2010 at 20:19

As an undergraduate (studying maths) at some point in my third year I was in a supervision, both my supervision partner(male) and I had read a news story about on gender differences in spacial awareness. At some point I commented that I found a particular aspect of geometry much easier than other parts. Somehow this news story was mentioned. My lovely superviser passionately told me it was all a load of rubbish and very unhelpful.
I really think it's important to particularly mention sucessful female mathematicians to undergraduate (and postgraduate) mathematicians otherwise it's easy to beleive they don't exist. Particularly when over a 3 year undergraduate course I only had two female lecturers and the combined total hours of those lectures was 24 hours (ie equivalent to one full length lecture course).
As a postgrad it's sometimes rather weird when you realise you are the only women in the audience of a seminar or that there are only two of you or that there hasn't been a female speaker at this particular seminar all term.
Unfortuately, I've found that since joining EWM (European women in maths) and going to one of their conferences(which was a wonderful experience), I've been accused of sexism by both male and female postgraduate collegues(actual staff have been supportive if it comes up).

Amanda Henshall // Posted 26 November 2010 at 22:24

This is a fascinating account, but as a researcher I'd sound a few notes of caution. The numbers of men and women are relatively small, and I'd want to see the same experiment replicated lots of times before I'd claim it was generalisable to the whole population. I'd also like to know more about the analysis...how did the researcher prove that it was her 'intervention' that caused the difference (I know that makes sense on the surface, but I'm just wondering how the researcher showed this in her results).

Tec // Posted 27 November 2010 at 17:09

Thanks so much for this article!

I studied Physics in university. The first year was pretty big but after that, the classes diminished to around 150 people, with maybe 1 or 2 women in the class (including myself). Even then, none of those women that I knew of where not in Astrophysics vs. Physics except myself so I sometimes had classes where I was the only woman. Needless to say, I felt very isolated.

The other thing is that, if you spent any time at all with the guys who were studying Physics, they were some of the most sexist douchebags I'd ever met in my life...

However, I did have 2 female physicist profs. :)

What people fail to realize as well though is it's only in recent times that there wasn't active discrimination. Every older women I encountered who had done a science degree in Engineering, Physics, Math, etc. had a horror story such as being subjected to sexist jokes and comments by their PROF EVERY DAY. Insane. It's these horror stories and not wanting to be the target of sexist BS personally why girls will actively choose to go into other sciences like the Life Sciences.

In fact, even though the number of women in Physics and Engineering has increased for undergraduate studies to be getting closer to parity, there's a sharp decrease for those continuing on with M.Sc.'s and Ph.D's. It's still very much a "boy's" club...

Then you get people who have the audacity to say the lack of women is due to some "fact" that women aren't good at math and physics in general and then, even if by some freak accident of nature are good at math and physics, well it's not the uni/physics department/etc.'s fault that these women don't take the "opportunity" to go into math and physics...right....

This writing exercise should be required every year before the start of class.

IrrationalPoint // Posted 27 November 2010 at 22:05

I really enjoyed this post -- great analysis and it's great to hear about more research on this topic.

Just one wee note: I found it a little confusing to find the right link to get to the original Discover piece, since the link at "Discover reports..." actually links to a discussion of a relevant, but different study on another blog. Would it be possible to link more clearly? Thanks!

Good work though.

--IP

Shinila Bakar // Posted 28 November 2010 at 00:37

What interesting post/ points Tec!

I know friends in engineering who say the lecturers can get pretty sexist! Dinosaurs man.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 28 November 2010 at 15:59

Some examples of inspiring female scientists:

Hertha Ayrton: http://womenshistorynetwork.org/blog/?p=223

Mary Somerville: http://womenshistorynetwork.org/blog/?p=184

And lots, lots more:
http://findingada.com/list/

Lindsey // Posted 29 November 2010 at 09:40

@Jess

Thanks for the link, you've made my monday morning a happier place if nothing else :)

Rhiannon // Posted 29 November 2010 at 10:50

I would also like the link to the article discussed...

Brees // Posted 30 November 2010 at 08:09

First of all, I found a link to the article on Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6008/1234.abstract

Secondly, while this is an interesting study, I do wonder if this is repeatable and generalizable to other settings. Was there some other confounding factor about this particular physics class that may have otherwise accounted for the significant change in scores?

Assuming that these results can be repeated, I also wonder if other subjects would show the same effect, such as mathematics or engineering. Furthermore, I wonder if such improvements would occur on the opposite side of the spectrum, where there may be a performance gap that is advantageous to women in other fields that the gender ratios are the opposite, with a larger number of females than males.

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