How Increasing Equity in the Science Classroom Drives Social Change

How Increasing Equity in the Science Classroom Drives Social Change

Key takeaways

  • Studies found that women underperformed on traditional exams relative to men. Course interest and test anxiety were found to impact women’s exam performance. As a result, when exams are higher stakes and account for the majority of the final class grade, this results in significant gender gaps, with men outperforming women. Strategies to reduce the sense of risk associated with exams are detailed in the article.
  • Females also participate significantly less than expected. As class sizes increase, women’s likelihood to participate decreases. This effect persists beyond the classroom as well. Several mitigating strategies, many involving equitable active learning implementation, are explained below.

Often when we think about students struggling in large classroom environments, we tend to assume that one classroom environment impacts all students in the same way. In the past, the student deficit model was prevalent, which assumes that some students struggle due to their lack of the appropriate knowledge or resources needed to succeed. Under this model, a student’s poor performance in class is attributed to their individual inadequacies. Contrary to the student deficit model, however, a course deficit model considers how a student’s environment may negatively impact them and assumes that classroom practices may favor certain groups of students, leading to performance disparities.

In her talk on September 11, 2019, Dr. Cissy Ballen applied this course deficit model to two challenges often seen in introductory STEM classrooms: significant differences in student performance and participation by gender. Dr. Ballen explained how certain features of the classroom environment and pedagogical choices can contribute to the gender gap in STEM and negatively impact student learning. She also discussed ways to mitigate this effect.

Challenge 1: Introductory undergraduate STEM classes exhibit significant gender performance differences

A study conducted with hundreds of thousands of students at the University of Michigan by Koester et al. in 2016 showed that men perform better in STEM classes than women. This may be related to how students are assessed in most STEM classes, which often have more high-stakes assessments that account for 75% to 100% of the final class grade. In contrast, low-stakes exams do not account for the majority of a student’s final class grade and instead use other forms of assessments to contribute to the final grade. To look deeper into the relationship between assessments and student performance, Dr. Ballen and colleagues examined whether the presence of high-stakes exams would predict students’ class performance in courses at both the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota (Salehi et al., 2019). The study found that women were underperforming on traditional exams relative to men. This was true in both colleges but significantly so in the College of Science and Engineering, where exams are higher stakes than in the College of Biological Sciences.

To further study whether grading schemes affect performance gaps, Cotner and Ballen (2017) looked at three classes taught by the same instructor. Each class had switched between low-stakes or high-stakes exams in different semesters. They found that the semesters with high-stakes grading resulted in significant gender gaps, with men outperforming women. In contrast, this gender difference in performance was not present in the semesters with low-stakes grading.

These data suggest that there may be something about exams that accounts for the gender gap. One idea, which has been studied extensively in math by Sian Beilock and colleagues, is the notion that high-stakes exams can result in testing anxiety, which has been found to negatively impact student performance (Foley et al., 2017). As a result, Dr. Ballen was interested in investigating how much test anxiety, belonging, and other social-psychological factors impacted student exam performance. Through pre-course surveys in several introductory biology classes, she found two factors that might account for the gender differences observed in exam performance: interest in course content and test anxiety.

The study found that for women, course interest and test anxiety did impact women’s exam performance. However, this was not predicted by incoming preparation (measured in terms of performance on the SAT/ACT, which consistently predicts performance across most STEM fields). For men, the opposite was found; neither course interest nor test anxiety affected men’s exam performance, though incoming preparation predicted test anxiety (Ballen et al., 2017). These same gender patterns were found when the study was expanded to a larger sample that included lower and upper division students in both the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Science and Engineering.

These findings support the course deficit model, encouraging faculty and instructors to consider how certain pedagogical choices can impact student performance. In this case, designing curricula to promote students’ interests, as well as finding ways to reduce the sense of risk associated with exams, can reduce gender gaps.The following list provides a few suggestions for minimizing the negative performance effects associated with high-stakes exams:

  • Align exam questions with homework questions
  • Implement affirmation exercises before an exam where students briefly write down what they care about and prioritize in their life (Cohen et al. 2006, 2009; Martens et al. 2006)
  • Use different exam structures (open book exams)
  • Distribute more exams to lower the amount that exams account for in the total class grade
  • Distribute no high-stakes exams and use other forms of assessments such as quizzes, reports, presentations, etc. to assess student learning
  • Offer students the ability to drop an exam
  • Allow retake exams (typically, retakes are worth a smaller percentage of the grade than the original exam and encourage students to reflect and learn from their mistakes while lowering the sense of risk associated with exams)

Challenge 2: Females participate significantly less than expected in STEM classrooms

A study by Sarah Eddy and colleagues in 2014 found that when an instructor asked questions to the whole class, fewer women participated than expected based on the proportion of women present in the courses they examined. This held true across more than 20 classrooms in the study. This effect persists beyond the classroom as well – data collected from 250 academic seminars in ten different countries shows that women audience members asked absolutely and proportionally fewer questions than men (Carter et al., 2018). Dr. Ballen’s work in 2019 looked at 45 unique biology classes across six institutions to see which factors might predict the likelihood of women participating in voluntary call-and-response interactions in the classroom. Some factors she looked at with colleagues included the diversity of interactions, proportion of women in the class, instructor gender, and class size. From 5300 total observed interactions, the one factor that significantly impacted women’s likelihood to participate was class size. As the size of a class increased from 50 to 150 students, the likelihood of a woman participating decreased by 50% compared to men. Here are some suggestions to help broaden participation in the classroom discussed in the actual study referenced during the talk (Ballen et al., 2019):

  • Increase wait time after asking a question. A study by Mary Rowe in 1974 found that increasing the wait time after asking a question from 1 second to 3-5 seconds resulted in more students volunteering answers, and their responses were more complex.
  • Ask students to work through problems in pairs or small groups. Group work mitigates the negative effect of large class size on women’s participation and allows students to practice contributing to a discussion in a non-threatening environment.
  • Have students write their answers down first instead of calling on them for responses. One method is to use a student response system that reveals their answers anonymously, then choose to read a few out loud. Then, you can ask students to follow up on their answers.
  • Ask for multiple volunteers and call on students after a certain number of hands are raised.
  • Appoint a reporter within student groups to report to the class what the group’s answer was. This takes the responsibility of the answer off the individual, and reporters can be assigned based on arbitrary characteristics (e.g., the person who woke up the earliest that morning, the person wearing a particular color shirt, etc.)

Looking at these two significant challenges often seen in undergraduate science classrooms, we see how the course deficit model comes into play. It is important to consider how different pedagogical elements and environmental factors can affect students’ performance because classroom experiences can have long-lasting impacts on students, from shaping their perception of their ability and class selection to their sense of belonging in specific fields and future careers.

Guest speaker

Cissy Ballen headshot

Dr. Cissy Ballen

Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
Auburn University

Dr. Ballen is an assistant professor of discipline-based education research in the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn University. Her interests broadly center on identifying scalable strategies in higher education that improve learning for all, and reducing attrition of historically underrepresented groups in life science fields. Prior to starting at Auburn, she completed postdoctoral research positions at Cornell University and University of Minnesota, studying the effects of high stakes assessment, support programs, teaching methods, and classroom culture on student performance and persistence in undergraduate biology. She completed a doctoral degree in evolutionary biology at the University of Sydney, Australia.


Ballen, C.J., Salehi, S., Cotner, S. (2017). Exams disadvantage women in introductory biology.
PLoS ONE 12(10): e0186419.

Ballen, C.J. et al. (2019). Smaller Classes Promote Equitable Student Participation in STEM.
BioScience 69(8), 669–680.

Carter, A.J., Croft, A., Lukas, D., Sandstrom, G.M. (2018). Women’s visibility in academic
seminars: Women ask fewer questions than men. PLoS 13(9): e0202743.

Cotner S., Ballen C.J. (2017). Can mixed assessment methods make biology classes more
equitable? PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189610.

Eddy, S.L., Brownell, S.E., Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Gender Gaps in Achievement and
Participation in Multiple Introductory Biology Classrooms. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 478-492.

Rowe MB. 1974b. Relation of wait‐time and rewards to the development of language, logic, and
fate control, part 2: Rewards. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 11: 291–308.

Salehi, S., Cotner, S., Azarin, S. M., Carlson, E. E., Driessen, M., Ferry, V. E., Harcombe, W.,
McGaugh, S., Wassenberg, D., Yonas, A., & Ballen, C.J. (2019). Gender Performance Gaps Across Different Assessment Methods and the Underlying Mechanisms: The Case of Incoming Preparation and Test Anxiety. Frontiers in Education, 4, [107].

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