COLLEGE STATION, Texas — An old stereotype says that females perform at a lower level than males in science courses, especially physics courses. However, according to a recent study, it couldn’t be more wrong. Female physics students at Texas A&M University performed just as well, and in some cases better, than male students in the course, researchers report.
For the study, researchers from the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy gathered data from 10,000 students over the course of 10 years. All students had taken introductory physics courses, of which exam scores and final averages were analyzed. According to the data, there was no evidence that female students performed worse in these specific courses.
Data was collected via a database that included all introductory physics courses and student averages over the decade. The courses included both calculus-based physics courses in which physics and engineering majors usually enroll, and algebra-based physics courses in which pre-med and life science majors usually take. The results indicated no association between student gender and overall performance in the course, contradicting the stereotype.
“There is no consistent trend on male students outperforming female students. Our study also provides new knowledge regarding whether statistically significant differences based on gender occurred on each exam for four introductory physics courses as the semesters were progressing — an area that has not previously been studied, at least not for such a large data set and over a long period of time,” says co-author Tatiana Erukhimova, a Texas A&M physicist and Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence, in a statement. “When differences in final letter grades for a course were observed, there were no persistent differences across that course’s exams.”
There were also no differences in final averages for each course regardless of any differences within exam grades over the course progression. Additionally, results showed that females outperformed males in algebra-based physics courses.
‘Majority of existing studies report persistent gender gap’
Previous studies collected data by asking students to complete surveys that tested their understanding of certain physics concepts. However, those surveys were optional, and men usually scored higher on them. This further increased the stereotype and caused researchers to develop this study to help gain substantial evidence.
“In the field of physics education research, the majority of existing studies report a persistent gender gap with males performing significantly better than females on introductory mechanics concept inventory assessments, such as the Force Concept Inventory. The results of prior studies on the gendered differences in student performance based on course grades and examinations are less consistent. While a number of studies indicate that male students outperform female students on the exams and course grades, other groups found no significant gendered difference in student performance,” says Erukhimova.
Various statistical data was collected to determine whether student gender was associated with course performance. To gain better context, a questionnaire was used to determine student feelings toward their own course performance, as well as their efforts and inclusion within the course. Approximately 1,600 students answered the questionnaire anonymously during the fall semester in 2019.
“Responses indicated that female students had a lower perception of their performance than their male classmates. The only class where female students perceived their performance as equal to their male classmates was algebra-based mechanics, in which females typically outperform males. Additionally, we found that although male and female students may feel differently regarding their performance and in-class contributions, they feel equally included in the class,” adds Erukhimova.
Eliminating the physics stereotype
The data was collected directly from faculty members and only included introductory courses. Also, the data did not include factors outside of the course that could have affected the performance of each student. Dr. Erukhimova and her team hope to incorporate SAT/ACT scores with their data to determine the effect of preparation on the results from this study.
“We believe that all students should have equal opportunities and chances for success in physics. The results of this work may help with fighting the gender stereotype threat that negatively impacts so many female students. By contributing to the body of knowledge about how gender relates to student performance, we hope that our work, which would not have been possible without our colleagues’ data, can be another step in dismantling the preconceived notion of a societal bias based on gender in physics,” says Erukhimova.
The findings are published in the American Physical Society journal Physical Review Physics Education Research and highlighted in a related Physics Magazine News and Commentary feature.
This study still does not dispel the stereotype of men performing better than women. People who take physics, particularly calculus-based physics already have a general interest and aptitude for the subject, so it is natural that men and women will perform similarly. This study should have also focused on the ratio of men to women in physics. In my experience, there is a low rate of women vs. men who study physics. This is what fuels the perception, or stereotype, that men perform better than women. The relatively low number of women who pursue that field of study gives rise to the belief that women, in general, do not perform as well as men, in general, in physics. Not a very well-rounded study, I must conclude. And I won’t bother asking the gender of the person who conducted it either.