Study: Women in STEM Will Benefit From Smaller Class Sizes


Aug 12, 2019


Smaller class sizes could greatly boost female participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes, according to new research. The paper, titled ‘Smaller Classes Promote Equitable Student Participation in STEM,’ was published in the journal BioScience.

The study incorporated data from 44 science courses and 5,300 student-instructor interactions observed across multiple institutions, including Cornell University, the University of Minnesota, Bethel University and American University in Cairo. From this pool, researchers found that class sizes over 120 students were negatively impacting female students.

“We show 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 in small-group discussions when instructors use diverse teaching strategies,” said lead author Cissy Ballen, a former postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, in a statement.

Participation in class has been linked to a number of student traits that have a direct correlation with academic success, according to Ballen. These traits include critical thinking skills, decreased anxiety and a higher sense of belonging in the classroom. In a situation where a woman is one of the few like her in a class, she is much less likely to speak up or feel like she belongs in the classroom.

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Dr.Kelly Zamudio, co-author and a Cornell professor, stated that large classes — especially those intended as introduction/101 classes — can be especially challenging for women, first-generation students, and underrepresented minorities. While Zamudio noted that this particular study was focused on women in STEM, the other axes of diversity also needed investigation.

“Diversity in STEM in the future will depend on us all paying attention to these issues, not just in admissions and retention, but also in the classroom climate,” she said.

In India, only 8-9% of students who join the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) are women. The problem was seen as so dire that the Ministry of Human Resources actively planned to prepare separate merit lists for girls and add at least 550 seats solely dedicated to female students, according to the Economic Times. All of these measures have been put in place to bring up the percentage of women in engineering colleges to at least 20%, or one woman for every five men.

“The deficit is not with those students, but rather with the classroom. If you want participation by everyone, then the classroom has to be an equal, open arena for everyone,” said Zamudio.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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