Self-affirming essay boosts coeds’ physics skills

29 Nov

For many years, there has been a persistent achievement gap between the performance of males and females in math and the sciences. It has become increasingly apparent, however, that the problem is cultural. The math gap seems to vanish in countries with higher degrees of gender equality, while females exposed to the stereotypical expectation that they'd do worse in a subject tended to live down to these low expectations. These findings, however, don't provide clear guidance as to how to address the problem: if females have already been exposed to these stereotypes, how do you get them to ignore them and perform up to their abilities? The answer, it appears, may be as simple as a short essay.

A study in last week's Science describes a program at the University of Colorado, focused on helping to narrow the achievement gap in an introduction to physics class targeted to science majors. In past years, research had found that a strong background and preparation could account for over half the gender difference in test scores, but that still leaves other, substantial factors to explain the discrepancies.

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