Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science

I recently discovered this Science article: Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science, which reports a study that improved women’s success in a college physics class using a very simple affirmation exercise.

Image: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/08/24/olin-college-class-of-2017-women-in-stem/
Image: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/08/24/olin-college-class-of-2017-women-in-stem/

There were 339 students in the study (both genders). Half were to write about their own values like friends and family (the values affirmation task), and the other half wrote about other people’s values (the control group). They only did the exercise twice – once at the very beginning of the 15-week course, and once a few weeks into the course, before the midterm.

These graphs show their results:

Graph A shows the overall scores when all tests are averaged together. In the control group, men far outperformed women. In the values affirmation group, however, the difference between the two groups was much smaller. Graph B shows the scores just on the end of the semester exam: this graph that shows that among the students who performed the values affirmation task, women actually scored higher than men, whereas the men still outperformed women in the control group. Notably, men's scores do not change depending on the group they're in.
Graph A shows the overall scores when all tests are averaged together. In the control group, men far outperformed women. In the values affirmation group, however, the difference between the two groups was much smaller. Graph B shows the scores just on the end of the semester exam: this graph that shows that among the students who performed the values affirmation task, women actually scored higher than men, whereas the men still outperformed women in the control group. Notably, men’s scores do not change depending on the group they’re in.

Why did the value affirmation task only improve females’ performance? The authors claim that the value affirmation task protected women from the common stereotype that they’re not as competent in STEM fields as men. I guess that would mean that men didn’t improve because they weren’t facing the psychological threat of the stereotype to begin with. It seems to me that the link between a cultural stereotype and writing about one’s own values would be pretty weak – the two seem to be only distantly related, so I’m still skeptical about their explanation.

It also surprises me to see such a difference between women who completed the values affirmation task and those who did not because the control task was actually very similar. The students in this group still wrote about values, but they were someone else’s values instead of their own. The take home message is that resiliency against a stereotype is bolstered only by reflecting on our own values.

These results suggest that a simple task (they only completed the values affirmation writing task twice) can have huge effects on women’s ability to overcome a stereotype (the article also cites other similar studies that have successfully explored a similar task with other populations who are likely to feel burdened by stereotypes). Could a simple psychological intervention really shape the demographics in STEM fields?

Why study humanities?

Lately there’s been a lot of encouragement for students to study STEM field, which, while important, has contributed to a pretty sizable decline in the number of people studying liberal arts, at least in America. This NYT article by Jennifer Schuessler reports that we are in “a time when the humanities and social sciences are themselves often accused of being frivolous at best, fraudulent at worst.”

After four years of a humanities curriculum at a small, liberal arts college, I can confidently say that I would choose this course of study for myself all over again. It probably isn’t the ideal path for all students, but I still think there’s so much value in courses that may not be immediately pertinent to a future career.

We shouldn't let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have... Image: Wikipedia
We shouldn’t let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have…
Image: Wikipedia

I really liked a few quotes from this article by John Horgan about why he teaches humanities to students at a technological institute:

In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism…

The humanities are more about questions than answers…

If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.

Said another way, humanities make us human. Horgan’s quotes hit a little closer to home for me than just defending humanities, because I think they also sum up why I’ve chosen to pursue cog sci.  It’s full of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism. For every question we address (I think using the word “answer” would be false advertisement), many more arise. This way, we’ll never run out of questions. In order to address them, we pull from a number of domains that may not even seem to be related at first glance. And by doing this, we probably won’t run out of novel ways to view the questions we entertain. I think this is incredibly important if we want to better understand the mind (and I don’t think this is too unique a desire). Maybe it’s satisfactory to be told something like: when you eat chocolate, your “pleasure center” lights up, but to me, we still have a long way to go, and STEM alone won’t get us there.