Profs say female STEM grades don’t reflect ‘perceived effort’

Four Otterbein University professors suggest that women may be averse to STEM fields because they feel they work harder than male students without earning higher grades.

After conducting a study of 828 students in STEM classes, the professors discovered that while women felt they put more effort into their classes than men, they received approximately equivalent grades, which “indicates that women’s higher perceived effort levels are not rewarded.” 

”This, in turn, returns us to questions of grading practices,” the professors write. “Does a course grade primarily reward conceptual understanding and problem-solving ability, or does it primarily reward hard work, reflected in course attendance, submission of assignments on time, etc., or some mixture of the two?”

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The researchers note that their findings may be of interest to STEM professors, since women are considered an underrepresented minority in STEM classes. 

“For decades, a notable gender gap in STEM motivation has been observed in mathematics and the physical sciences, especially for self-efficacy and the related concept of self-confidence,” the professors explain, asserting that “a growing body of work suggests that cultural and societal factors drive this divide and thus a change in culture and environment could close the gender gap in STEM fields.”

Notably, while female STEM students report higher levels of motivation, they also report lower levels of “self-efficacy,” defined as “students’ beliefs that they can achieve well in science.” 

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Female students’ sense of self-efficacy is strongly predicted by grades, the professors note, fretting that this may discourage students sense of motivation to stay in STEM. 

“These findings support the notion that grade discouragement leads to within-semester motivational declines, although we cannot rule out the possibility that lower motivation leads students to earn lower grades,” they explain. “The latter would suggest that supporting student motivation, by whatever means, would lead to higher achievement, and possibly higher retention.”

Citing research by Kevin Rask, now a professor at Colorado College, they propose that “science educators could redistribute grades more akin to non-STEM disciplines to increase STEM retention.” 

The professors conclude their study by suggesting that “faculty development addressing alterations in [grade] assessment practices could be fruitful to help maintain students in STEM disciplines.” 

Motivational Decline and Recovery in Higher Education STEM Classes” was published in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Science Education, a peer-reviewed journal published out of the University of Melbourne, Australia.

[RELATED: Profs: ‘White male privilege’ to blame for STEM gender gap]

Lead author Anna Young told Campus Reform by email from South Africa that “grade discouragement is demotivating students.” 

“I think there are different ways to work on that issue, such as keeping feedback on student work but reducing the frequency that work is given an official grade,” Young said. 

When asked about a common practice in STEM classes—grading on a curve—Young suggested that “setting the average higher or doing away with that system are both options that could help bolster motivation in STEM.” 

Women in STEM could also be helped by developing a “growth mindset,” she suggested, saying, “The first step in addressing this issue is to make people aware of it—both female and male professors and students—and then educate all groups again about the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.” 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen