Friday, December 10, 2010

Women in Physics: A Surprising Study

The Nov. 26, 2010 issue of the journal Science published an article by Akira Miyake and collaborators from the University of Colorado at Boulder that suggested a relatively simple intervention can have a profound influence on the attitudes and success in physics by women students. The paper entitled "Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation" (Science,2010, 330, 1234-1237) is one that every scholar in physics education research should read.

Physics (along with Computer Science and some areas of Engineering) has remained one of the few disciplines in which, at least at the graduate and faculty level, women are still seriously under-represented. This is true in North America, although the situation is very different, and has been for decades, in a number of other cultures. A recent study by Eric Brewe and collaborators (Phys. Rev. ST Phsics Ed. Research, 6, 1, 010106) finds, based on five years of Force Concept Inventory (FCI) testing, that there was a gender gap between male and female introductory physics students' conceptual understanding of physics, and that the gap was present upon entrance to university, and in fact increased during the university physics course. The reasons for the under representation of women in physics have proved elusive to identify, although some types of learning approaches have been shown to narrow the gap.

The Colorado experiment involved 399 students (283 men and 116 women) from an introductory physics class at the university. Some students were given a values affirmation activity, twice, early in the term, while the control group were not. All other aspects of the educational experience were the same for the two groups. It was a randomized double blind experiment, so that the faculty and teaching assistants did not know which students were in the experimental group.

The values affirmation intervention was a simple one. Twice, once at the beginning and once just prior to a midterm test, students were asked to write about values. Both students in the experimental and control groups were presented with 12 possible values , for example relationships with friends and family, or the importance of learning or gaining knowledge. The experimental group were asked to select the value of most important to them, and to write an essay on that value. In the control group the students were asked to write an essay on the value that was least important to them, and why that value might be important to other people. There was no direct link to the physics course content, or encouragement to link the two. Nevertheless, female students who had written about a value important to them performed significantly better in physics at the end of the course (approximately one grade point higher), and also performed better in physics concept testing with the FCI. Interestingly, the difference for male students was not significant (and in fact slightly negative). Particularly encouraging was that the intervention seemed to have the biggest effect on students who had entering negative stereotypes about the role of women in science.

Even the authors found the results surprising. As lead author Akira Miyake, who is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Colorado Univesity in Boulder, stated in the university press release "I just wasn't expecting these results.... it still amazes me how this writing exercise has such positive influences." The theory behind the intervention is recent psychological research on identity threat, when entering stereotypes provide a threat to success.

Co-author in the study physicist Noah Finkelstein, well known in the PER community, expressed the following view in the university press release: "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."

It will be interesting to see the results as the experiment is replicated in other environments. At least in many Canadian institutions women are not under-represented in introductory physics classes, and it would be interesting to see if the results were affirmed in environments in which women were not the minority. One idea which came to mind, was is it possible that the values affirmation activity, done within the context of a physics course, helps students to perceive physics itself in a more personal and positive fashion. As teachers we all know that students respond better when they feel that the learning environment is personal (teachers know them as individuals and express concern for their success, their views are valued by the class, etc.).

I hope that those who read this blog (people do read these posts?) will post in the comments section their view of the study, and what it might be telling us.

1 comment:

Anthony Roberts said...

Interesting research. Stereotype threat is a signficant problem and with the right encouragement it seems it can be overcome! I was part of a teaching conference (STLHE) several years ago where the presenters ran an interesting little experiment with the audience demonstrating this. It was very interesting to see and experience!