A small experiment at the University of Colorado was able to close the gap in performance between men and women taking an introduction to physics class – by means of a writing test wholly unrelated to science.
Miyake took 283 men and 116 women who were taking the class and divided them into two groups. The first group took a short, 15-minute writing exercise at the start of the course, where they picked two of the values most important to them, and wrote about why they were important to them.
The second group wrote about two of the values least important to them – and why they might be important to other people.
Neither the groups nor the teaching assistants that led the exercise knew what the point of the experiment was – instead, they were told it was about improving writing skills.
The task worked. During the rest of the semester, the students sat for four exams that made up most of their final grade. Among the control group, who wrote about other people’s values, men outperformed women by an average of ten percentage points. But among the students who affirmed their own values, the gender gap largely disappeared. Their final grades reflected this shrunken divide: if the women took Miyake’s exercise, far more got Bs and far fewer got Cs.
Miyake also gave the students a standard test called the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), which checks their understanding of basic physics concepts. In Miyake’s control group, the men outscored the women, as they usually do. But the women who wrote about their values closed the gap entirely.
Here’s the graph showing the impact on test scores:
Impressive stuff. This is actually a replication of a similar experiment which succeeded in boosting the grades of black school students.
The experiment hinges on “stereotype threat”, Discover explains: women are expected to be worse at science, and simply the awareness of this stereotype is enough to decrease their performance. The writing exercise boosted the students’ self-worth and confidence, counteracting the effects of the stereotype.
Miyake’s achievement is doubly impressive because the physics course had already tried to introduce ways of reducing the gender gap, including extra tutorials. But all of these methods involved more of the same – more teaching, or more problems to solve. Miyake’s exercise, by contrast, had nothing whatsoever to do with physics; it worked because it improved the environment in which women learn physics.