A new data-driven study from Texas A&M University casts serious doubt on the long-held belief that male students perform better than female students in science — specifically, physics.
A team of researchers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy analyzed both the midterm exam scores and final grades of more than 10,000 Texas A&M students enrolled in four introductory physics courses across more than a decade, finding no evidence that male students consistently outperform female students in these courses. Their findings were published this month in the American Physical Society journal Physical Review Physics Education Research and highlighted in a related Physics Magazine News and Commentary feature.
The work, which was led by Texas A&M physicist and Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence Tatiana Erukhimova, featured a Texas A&M physics undergraduate first author, Matthew A. Dew ’20 of Spring, Texas, who spent two years on the project prior to earning his degree in December and has since been accepted to top Ph.D. programs in physics education research. The team also included Texas A&M physicist and Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence William Bassichis, Texas A&M physicist and associate head of Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy Lewis Ford and 2018 Texas A&M physics Ph.D. graduate and former Texas A&M physicist Jonathan Perry, currently an assistant professor of physics at The University of Texas at Austin.
“Our findings provide new information that performance on exams and final letter grades are not systematically dependent on student gender,” Erukhimova said. “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.”
With help of nearly two dozen of their departmental colleagues, the Texas A&M team built a sizeable database reflecting the complete introductory physics educational spectrum: the calculus-based course sequence primarily taken by engineering and physics majors as well as the algebra-based course sequence typically taken by life sciences and premed majors. Their final analysis shows that exam performance and final letter grades are largely independent of student gender — results which Erukhimova says show promise in abolishing gender stereotypes that negatively impact so many female students in STEM.
“When we found differences in final letter grades for a course, we observed no persistent differences across that course’s exams,” she said. “Conversely, when we found differences on exams within a course, we observed no differences for final letter grades in that course. In algebra-based mechanics, we found that female students actually outperformed male students by a small but statistically significant margin.”
The team applied multiple statistical analyses, including t-test and analysis of variance, to the course-level data they collected in order to study whether there were performance differences based on student gender. To see how their findings aligned with student perceptions, they also took a snapshot of the students’ feelings about course performance, inclusion and contributions using a short anonymous questionnaire distributed to 1,600 students in fall 2019.
“Responses indicated that female students had lower perception of their performance than their male classmates,” Erukhimova said. “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 class.”
Prior to the team’s study and others similar to it, Erukhimova says it has been an open question as to whether significant differences between male and female students could show up on particular exams but remain slight enough so as not to affect final course grades. For the past 25 years, the profession has relied on inventory tests — optional surveys intended to assess conceptual understanding and retention of key physics concepts — to answer that question, effectively substantiating the argument for gender differences in student performance by default because men tend to score higher on them.
“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,” Erukhimova said. “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.”
Although the team’s study represents clear progress to Erukhimova, she acknowledges it comes with its own limitations — the most significant being that it relies solely on course-level data collected from faculty and does not analyze the possible impact of non-academic factors on student performance. In the future, she says the team would like to connect as much of their data set as possible to university-level records to see how prior preparation, such as SAT scores, affects these results.
“We believe that all students should have equal opportunities and chances for success in physics,” Erukhimova said. “The results of this work may help with fighting 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.”
The team’s research was funded in part by the College of Science Diversity and Equity Small Grants Program. Their paper, “Gendered performance differences in introductory physics: A study from a large land-grant university,” can be viewed online along with related figures and captions.
“The results obtained by our Physics Education Research team are very important, as they have clearly and conclusively demonstrated that there is no scientific merit whatsoever in the commonly held view that women are somehow not as good as men in STEM fields,” said Dr. Grigory Rogachev, professor and head of Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy. “They are every bit as good! This is beautiful and extensive work, and I wholeheartedly congratulate the entire team.”
Learn more about undergraduate degree options in physics at Texas A&M.
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