Study Addresses Lack of Female Participation in STEM Classrooms
A new study shows that class size has the largest impact on female participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms, and offers insights on ways to change the trend.
Dr. Cissy Ballen, an assistant professor in biological sciences at Auburn University, works to address the role of higher education in creating equitable learning environments in her lab located in the College of Sciences and Mathematics. Ballen is a lead author on the paper recently published in the journal Bioscience. After reading previous studies that have found that women participated less than expected based on the proportion of women in science classrooms, she and her colleagues wondered whether they could isolate larger patterns or trends that might explain why this is the case.
Using data obtained from 44 unique science courses across multiple institutions, including University of Minnesota, Cornell University, Bethel University, American University in Cairo and more, the team calculated likelihood ratios of female participation from more than 5,300 interactions between instructors and students throughout a two-year study period.
“We falsify several hypotheses and show that class size has the largest impact on female participation, with smaller classes leading to more equitable participation,” Ballen explained. “We also found that women are most likely to participate after small-group discussions when instructors use diverse teaching strategies.”
The results aligned with previous work that calls for a halt on the continued expansion of large introductory courses in science and highlights the importance of continued empirical measurement of factors that either promote or counter equity in undergraduate STEM. For example, many evidence-based active-learning techniques appear to work by making large classes function like smaller classes.
“Our results show females were more likely to speak in small groups and this effect was more pronounced when diverse teaching approaches were employed,” Ballen said. “We hope these results encourage instructors to be proactive in their classrooms with respect to these inequities.”
The study revealed that large classes begin to negatively impact students when they are comprised of more than approximately 120 students. Instructors can play an active role in minimizing the problems associated with large classes by drawing on the active learning literature and exploring which strategies are most effective in their own courses. The results suggested that the best way to alleviate the negative impact of large class sizes on female participation is to use diverse teaching strategies and small group interactions.
Stepfanie M. Aguillon, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, became involved in the study as an observer for the classes at Cornell University. She said although the study agreed with recent research on the topic, she was surprised by the large effect that increasing class size had on participation by women.
“By comparing so many different classes with the same observational protocol, we were really able to tease out the importance of class size,” Aguillon explained. “The observational protocol also made it possible to better understand how the diversity of classroom interactions that an instructor uses during class time can influence student participation. So the results did meet my expectations overall, but we were able to get at a lot more nuances in the patterns because of the extensive dataset we collected.”
Aguillon said she believes that measuring class participation in STEM is important since studies are recently recognizing that participation doesn't necessarily occur equitably across genders.
“Because participation in itself is preparing students to be scientists, it’s really important that we figure out what promotes more equitable participation by women,” she added.
Ballen said she feels that measuring class participation in STEM is important for two reasons: active learning is increasingly replacing traditional lecture as the dominant form of instruction across college campuses in the United States; and pervasive gender gaps in participation is a problem in the classroom.
“Participation has been linked to a number of student traits that can contribute to academic success, such as critical thinking skills, decreased anxiety, and a higher sense of belonging in the classroom” she said. “Fostering participation in the classroom independent of student grades is important, even for students that may already be earning good grades. We realize that ultimately, administrators and legislators must address the problems with large class sizes, and we hope this work can be part of that conversation.”