As a female student of a physical science, I have a certain amount of interest in the subject of female students in the physical sciences. It turns out we're pretty rare - the gap is practically gone in the biological sciences, closing rapidly in chemistry, and closing slightly more slowly in mathematics, but it's remained stubbornly large in physics, engineering, and computer science. It also turns out we underperform compared to our male colleagues both in introductory classes and on standardized tests. The biggest and most influential gap I'm aware of is on the Physics GRE, but we also apparently underperform on the physics SAT II, math SAT, quantitative GRE, and the standardized pre/post-test used in many introductory physics classes called the "Force Concept Inventory."
Every few years, one study or another comes up with great data showing that girls or women do a lot better in math or science classes when certain changes are made. These changes almost invariably correspond to the techniques that just happen to be generally fashionable in the educational community at the time. When the "new math" was in vogue, there were studies showing that it closed the gender gap (it may have, to some extent, by crippling boys and girls equally); "child-led learning" was supposed to do the same; then there were charter schools, smaller class sizes, and recently a proposed return to gender-segregated schools championed by the sorts of people who said that girls would learn math better by counting flower petals instead of solving equations. It's almost enough to make one cynical.
The method in vogue today is something alternately called "active," "interactive," or "collaborative" learning. It's implemented at the grade school level as "think-pair-share"; for adults in college classrooms, a similar technique is used, but the silly terminology is (thankfully!) left out in favor of more age-appropriate phrases like "peer instruction." The general idea is that a significantly larger portion of class time than usual is devoted to various structured collaborative small-group activities, with or without ensuing full-class discussions.
Now, there are all sorts of ad-hoc rationalizations about why this is supposed to be better for female students in general - we're supposedly more collaborative, less competitive, more timid about answering questions in class, and better at coming up with answers if we can verbalize them in small groups first. The fact that male students almost universally also benefit from changes in teaching techniques designed to benefit girls is always ignored. The observation that nearly all students in serious college-level for-majors math and science courses are atypical in some way, and female students are more often than not gender-atypical, is never taken seriously.
Doing my best to lay aside my own reaction to these teaching techniques (I hate it! I hate talking to people when I haven't had a chance to work out a problem on my own! I hate feeling locked in to a solution because someone has already seen it and listened to me explain it! I hate feeling like I'm teaching my classmates when I'm completely and utterly unqualified to do so! I hate feeling responsible for other people's misconceptions!) Anyway...doing my best to lay all that aside and realize that the generalizations made in studies aren't necessarily intended to apply to me personally, I took a serious look at the Harvard study released a while back that showed that the gender gap could be significantly reduced with the introduction of interactive learning techniques. It seems fairly well-done, with a typical narrative for the sort of study that it is: women were worse off than men coming into a calculus-based physics course and the differences were magnified by the end of the course, new teaching technique was adopted, both women and men did better but women did so much better that the gap was erased.
As I sad, this is typical for the sort of study that it is. You could easily substitute any of the myriad of other educational fashions in for "interactive learning techniques" and find a study that produces basically the same results in some field or other in some age group. To the extent that these studies demonstrate anything, it's that when you take decent instructors, give them a new tool in their teaching toolbox, tell them how to use it, and force them to pay more attention to their teaching (because they're using the new tool), their students do better. This may indirectly help to close the gender gap in some cases by lifting all students up to a similar level of understanding - students, including girls, who come in unprepared are more reliant on being "taught" - but the evidence that any gender-equalization effect is really linked to the techniques' catering to sex-stereotyped learning styles is in my opinion weak at best.
So, as you may guess, I was completely unsurprised to discover that a new study, this one from the University of Colorado, failed to show any statistically-significant gender-gap reduction using the same techniques as the Harvard study. Again, all students did better with the new teaching style, but women didn't gain on men as they did at Harvard. In fact, men made greater gains than women.This ought to be shocking; a "feminine" sex-stereotyped program aimed at improving women's learning actually benefits men more than women. But it's barely worthy of mention, and the study authors make sure to appease the sex-stereotypers by noting that women in the classes did in fact perform in accordance with their stereotypes, doing better than men on "collaborative" homework and worse on "competitive and time constrained" exams, achieving overall grades that were on average equal to the men's. Altogether, the results were impressive as a demonstration of the effectiveness of a new teaching style implemented well, but failed to show any implications for gender equality whatsoever.
So there's still no silver bullet; students, including women, who come into a physics class with less preparation will usually leave with a weaker understanding of the material, the Harvard study notwithstanding. It's possible there may have been a confounding variable like class size, instructor availability, or simply the general higher preparation level of the Harvard students as compared to the Colorado students. But the use of some new teaching techniques can be of general benefit to most students. It doesn't make for good headlines - but responsible science, especially in the social sciences, generally doesn't.
AGU 2013 preview and participation
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