Addressing the Gender Gap in Class Participation in STEM Fields

Students’ identities can play a key role in how comfortable they feel and how often they speak up in the classroom, especially in STEM fields.

A new study conducted at Princeton University in New Jersey examined 1,400 student comments from over 89 class periods in 10 engineering courses. The variation in student verbal participation levels with gender was analyzed, and its correlation with student speaking order, as well as other factors related to the classroom structure, were investigated. Half of the classes were taught by women and women made up 45.5 percent of the students in these classes.

They found that women generally speak far less than men in undergraduate engineering classes. Only 20 percent of all comments were made by women. But low participation was not always the case, according to the researchers. When classes were taught by women instructors, the gender gap practically disappeared. Another major factor in women’s class participation is participation by other women. The researchers found that women were much more likely to speak after another woman had spoken in class.

“That was one of the findings that I was most excited about, because it felt like something that could really be leveraged to change teaching practices,” said study coauthor Nikita Dutta. “It’s kind of like a waterfall effect once one woman starts to participate.”

Dr. Dutta is a graduate of Yale University, where she majored in physics. She holds a Ph.D. in materials science and mechanical engineering from Princeton University. She is now a postdoctoral researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The full study, “Illuminating the Role of Classmates in Reducing the Participation Gender Gap in Lecture-Based Engineering Classes,” was published on the website of IEEE Transactions on Education. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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