“It’s not simply enough to count up the number of students in the class and say, ‘Well, we have representation of women; women’s experiences in biology are exactly the same as men,’ because what we’re seeing is they’re not,” said Sara Brownell, an assistant professor at the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences, who wrote the study with Katelyn Cooper, a graduate student at the school.
The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence that points to a large gender gap in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM fields.
While the study was based on students in a single class, it underscored how differently men and women in science perceive their abilities. Such self-perceptions can have cascading effects on motivation, participation and confidence.
For the study, the authors focused on 202 students in an upper-level physiology class at the university that employed an active learning approach, emphasizing participation, particularly in small-group discussions. Of the group, 130 students were women, 70 were men and two identified in a separate category.
After asking the students to compare their own academic ability to that of their classmates, the authors then asked how the students made those assessments.
They found little difference by gender, with the two most common cited factors being who answered more questions correctly and who had a better understanding of the materials.
Those considerations, the authors said, could help efforts to close the disparity in how men and women compare themselves with their peers. For example, instructors could encourage women to participate more and answer more questions.
“Maybe contributing and maybe hearing their own voices and maybe hearing other students build on their own ideas might be really important factors in enhancing how a student perceives their own ability,” Ms. Cooper said.
The researchers cautioned against overgeneralizing the findings until the study could be replicated in different classes and schools.
“Different contexts and different instructors and different students could potentially change what these gaps actually look like,” Professor Brownell said.