Small Class Size Plays a Major Role in Women’s Retention Rate in STEM Majors

A new report, led by a scholar now at Auburn University in Alabama, demonstrates that increasing class size has the largest negative impact on women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms.

Using data obtained from 44 science courses across multiple institutions, the research team calculated female participation from more than 5,300 interactions between instructors and students over a two-year period. Their research revealed that large classes begin to negatively impact women students’ participation when they reach enrollments over 120 students.

Cissy Ballen, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, when the study was conducted and is now an assistant professor of biological sciences at Auburn University in Alabama, is the lead author of the study. She explains that “class size has the largest impact on female participation, with smaller classes leading to more equitable participation. We also found that women are most likely to participate after small-group discussions when instructors use diverse teaching strategies.”

The authors call for a halt on the continued expansion of large introductory courses and highlight the importance of studying factors that either promote or counter equity. For example, many evidence-based active-learning techniques appear to work by making large classes function like smaller classes.

“If you want participation by everyone, then the classroom has to be an equal, open arena for everyone,” notes Kelly Zamudio, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell and one of the co-authors of the study..

The full article, “Smaller Classes Promote Equitable Student Participation in STEM,” was published on the website of the journal BioScience. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/StudySTEM Fields


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