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Women Participate Less in Interactive College Classes Due to Fear of Peer Judgment: Study

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Jun 11, 2020

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Image Credit: Hitesh Sonar for The Swaddle/IITT

An American study has found that men participate more in ‘active learning’ courses compared to their female counterparts, who were, reportedly, not only more aware of their gender identity, but also feared gender-based judgments from peers.

Active learning is an instructional method that aims to engage students with the course material and learning process in a more holistic way through activities like role playing, class presentations, group discussions and projects, peer teaching, and debates, among other exercises. Compared to traditional lectures, active learning is a more hands-on approach to teaching. Research suggests that active learning increases student engagement and bolsters their ability to practically apply the information. A 2012 study had also found that it increases student retention, and enhances their academic performance, especially in in STEM courses. However, active learning can also trigger anxiety and a fear of negative evaluation in students since it doesn’t take diversities like different social, or learning, abilities of the vast spectrum of students into consideration. And, one of these oft-ignored diversities is gender.

Titled Gender Differences in Student Participation in an Active Learning Classroom, the study was published in the peer-reviewed journal CBE: Life Sciences Education. Performed by researchers from the Cornell University, the study examined the behaviors of students over two semesters across 40 lectures by eight instructors. The study found that men participated more in active learning courses. In addition to the heightened sense of gender identity and fear of gender-based judgment, the women also reported lower perceptions of their scientific abilities compared to men in STEM classes, which comprise science, technology, engineering and math.


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Research has shown that at some point during middle school, most boys develop a higher sense of self-worth and confidence than girls — either as a result of existing gender stereotypes, or varying levels and nuances of social conditioning propagated by society and passed down across generations. And this has a direct impact on their classroom participation: even in classrooms with 60 percent women, their voluntary participation to questions posed by instructors to the whole class remains lower than 40 percent, according to a 2014 study. The present study by Cornell University not only exposes this gender gap, but also demonstrates an urgent need to incorporate more inclusive pedagogical methods in order to bridge the gender-based disparities in STEM fields, as well as other educational disciplines.

While there might not be a one-stop solution to make active learning more inclusive, there are a multitude of ways to address it. First, since men volunteer to respond to classroom discussions more than women, experts suggest that: either using a randomized list of students to call upon for answers instead of waiting for them to raise their hands, or teaching students, who actively speak up in class, to yield the floor to others so that they don’t end up monopolizing all of the instructor’s time — could help relatively quieter students speak up and engage more. Second, research shows that men are more likely to volunteer for leadership roles in group projects while women often tend to settle for collaborative positions. Hence, assigning leadership positions to women could push them to take charge, and in doing so, at least, increase their participation, if not boost their confidence levels. Third, another strategy, based on studies, is asking students beforehand who they feel more comfortable partnering with for group projects in a bid to make them feel more included in the process rather feeling isolated, or underrepresented, in the groups they are assigned to work with.

With India gradually inching towards incorporating active learning into its education systems, it is time to focus on assimilating these inclusive practices into the new teaching methods so that the two decades’ old trend of girls outperforming boys in board exams across the country can be replicated within the active learning structure as well. “For us, it emphasizes that the instructor is really setting the stage for the students to act — and what that stage looks like can matter,” Gregor-Fausto Siegmund, one of the lead researchers of the study, commented.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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