Research on class size and participation of women in undergraduate STEM courses

This 2019 paper by Ballen et al in BioScience entitled “Smaller Classes Promote Equitable Student Participation in STEM” is worth reading if you’re interested in equity, teaching, and STEM.

This large study (with 26 co-authors!) attempts to determine which features of undergraduate STEM classrooms correlate with more equitable vocal participation of women through a careful analysis of 5300 student-instructor interactions in 44 courses (observed over a full term) at six different institutions (4 in the U.S., 1 in Egypt, 1 in Norway). Answer: (1) class size was most impactful, followed by (2) the number of different strategies that the instructor used to elicit students’ vocal participation in class.

Educational literature up to this point has been very mixed about the connection between class size and student learning (see OECD 2012 report, CampbellCollaboration 2018 report, and many others). This is the first paper in which I’ve seen a strong argument for reducing class size: lowering class size increases the likelihood that women will participate in undergraduate STEM classes. In their data, increasing class size from 50 to 150 students decreased the likelihood of a woman participating by 50%.

The researchers were also able to reject several alternative hypotheses with their data. These alternative hypotheses included connections between equitable vocal participation and (1) abundance of student-instructor interactions per class period, (2) instructor gender, (3) proportion of women in the class, and (4) whether the STEM class was lower- or upper-division. (In other words, none of these things significantly correlated with more equitable participation.)

But since class size is often out of the instructor’s control, what can one do to make participation more equitable? The researchers found that instructors using a large repertoire of methods of eliciting vocal participation from students also got more equitable participation. (This makes me wonder, however, whether the size of an instructor’s repertoire of methods for eliciting student participation might correlate with instructor’s overall skill.) The article gives at least 7 different strategies that instructors can use to elicit students’ contributions in a classroom:

1) increase wait time between posing a question and selecting someone to answer in front of the whole class
2) using think-pair-share before selecting someone to answer
3) letting students work in small groups
4) having students write first before sharing out loud
5) soliciting multiple volunteers and calling on students only after a certain number of students have raised their hands
6) assigning student groups a number and using random number to select a group to answer
7) assigning a student in a group to be the “reporter” based on some arbitrary characteristic (e.g. random number or who woke up earliest)

I have a few more:
8) in addition to having good wait time, when posing a question to the class that you want students to respond to, select concise and clear wording for your question prompt, display the question on the screen (if possible) while reading it, and avoid that awkward continuous rephrasing of the question as a way of filling the silence
9) using vertical non-permanent surfaces (like white or chalk boards) to make student work visible before having students share ideas verbally to the whole class
10) positioning incomplete, partial, incorrect answers as being valuable to classroom discourse so as to lower the social risk for students to participate in whole-class discourse
11) using Google docs or equivalent online platforms to allow students to simultaneously contribute their ideas in an online space (this idea doesn’t involve vocal participation like the others, but it still involves students articulating their ideas in front of others)

Because the researchers’ posited reasons for women participating in class less than men involve imposter syndrome and social identity threat, that means these results should also to students of color in undergraduate STEM courses as well. In addition, I can see that many of the same arguments will also apply to secondary schools.

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