On women in Physics

According to this article in Slate, women can boost test scores in Physics merely by doing a few, short creative-writing exercises. Huh? Here’s the basis of the theory:

When it comes to math and science classes, women can be subtly hampered by negative stereotypes about their gender. This is the idea of stereotype threat, advanced by psychologists Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele, and now solidly established, as I’ve written in Slate before. Stereotype threat can roar into action when members of any stereotyped group are primed to think about belonging to it—in other words, when women focus on being female or African-Americans on being black. It causes performance problems, but stereotype threat can also be countered, often in simple ways. As the Colorado writing exercises show, getting women to focus on things they care about can buck them up. The lesson is that small doses of affirmation can do a lot of good.

I think makes sense. Anyone who is told that they belong to a group that sucks will, on average, suck. Performance in anything is very psychological.

Girls, at least of my generation and before, have been constantly told that the hard sciences and math are really something at which men are better wired. This untrue and damaging stereotype has altered the career paths of countless women. Worse, we still expect girls to participate and excel at these classes, which further damages self-esteem, etc. [I know this sounds PC and corny, but it is right.] I tire of seeing all-male theoretical physics groups at companies. Believe me, I have lived them.

So, while I have nothing to say about these new studies, I find them intriguing:

Now, the Colorado researchers have shown that writing exercises can also make a difference for female science students. In a double-blind study published last week in Science, the researchers worked with 399 undergrads in a calculus-based physics class. They randomly assigned some of them to write about two or three items from a list that included “learning and gaining knowledge,” “belonging to a social group,” “athletic ability,” “relationships with family and friends,” and “sense of humor.” They were then told to reflect on why these things mattered to them. (The other students received the same list of values, but were asked to choose the ones least important to them and write about why they might be important to other people.) Students completed these exercises early in the semester, at moments when they might be expected to feel uncertain about the class: the first week of school and then the week before the first midterm.

The benefits were dramatic. Most of the women who received C’s in the class were in the group that had written on values they cared about least. Most of the women who received B’s had written on what they cared about most. (There was no effect for women who were getting A’s, or for men in general.) Women who affirmed their own values also scored higher on a standardized exam of key physics concepts, taken at the end of the term. Strikingly, women who’d said they believed the stereotype that men are better at physics were the ones who benefited from the exercises the most.

The question is, if this really is beneficial, how does this alter the teaching of physics? Do we make kids write these essays at the beginning of class? Or are there nuggets of wisdom we can extract that will help us teach physics to girls a little bit differently?

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Ron Gordon

Math nerd in his early 40’s who seems to have an opinion about everything and an inability to keep it to himself.