Fourth Industrial Revolution

Exam anxiety could be holding women back in the sciences

PhD student Maija Maskuninty works in a laboratory at Imperial College in London, May 28, 2010. Across the western world, Big Pharma is cutting back on the number of scientists it employs in its labs and the money it spends on research and development. The hunt for new drugs continues, but the men and women in white coats - traditionally viewed as the lifeblood of the industry - are not as untouchable as they once were. Tucked neatly behind London's famous Science Museum, which pays homage to the groundbreaking advances that made modern medicine what it is, the chemistry labs at Imperial College offer one last refuge from the realities of the marketplace. Picture taken May 28, 2010. To match Special Report PHARMACEUTICALS/  REUTERS/Paul Hackett/Files (BRITAIN - Tags: SOCIETY HEALTH EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS EDUCATION)

Women are more likely to drop out of scientific courses because of experiencing higher exam anxiety. Image: REUTERS/Paul Hacket

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Fourth Industrial Revolution

Women feel more anxiety over taking high-stakes tests in college courses than men do, new research suggests.

Research has long shown that women who enter college intending to pursue a career in science abandon that path more frequently than their male peers, with many citing poor grades and large gateway classes as reasons for their declining interest.

To what extent do these women fall behind because of the way science is taught and tested?

Researchers studying students in introductory biology courses found that women overall performed worse than men on high-stakes exams but better on other types of assessments, such as lab work and written assignments. The study also shows that the anxiety of taking an exam has a more significant impact on women’s grades than it does for men.

“It was striking,” says Shima Salehi, a doctoral student at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and one of the study’s two lead authors.“We found that these types of exams disadvantage women because of the stronger effect that test anxiety has on women’s performance.”

Gender gap

The researchers collected data on 1,562 students in 10 large introductory biology course sections during fall 2016. (A majority of these students were women, typical for introductory biology classes.) They analyzed exam scores as well as students’ performance on non-exam assessments like lab activities, discussion sections, written assignments, and low-stakes quizzes.

On average, the researchers found, female students underperformed compared to males on biology course exams. They did better than males, however, on the non-exam assessments—a finding the study’s authors says underscores the likelihood that high-pressure testing does not adequately capture a student’s understanding.

“Other studies have shown that students’ performance on high-stakes exams is not a good predictor for whether they’re acquiring the skills that STEM professionals need,” Salehi says. “And if psychological barriers prevent women from performing optimally on exams, it may be time to reconsider exams as a primary method for evaluating students’ knowledge.”

Anxiety and interest

To better understand what might be affecting exam performance, the researchers focused on two factors: test anxiety and a lack of interest in the subject matter of the course. They surveyed a subset of the subject pool (286 students from three of the introductory sections) before final exams about their anxiety and their interest in the course content.

In the survey, researchers asked students to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how well certain statements applied to them. Statements about anxiety, for example, included “I am so nervous during a test that I cannot remember facts that I have learned” and “When I take a test, I think about how poorly I am doing.”

Statements to assess students’ interest included “I think that what I am learning in this course is useful for me to know” and “I think I will be able to use what I learn in this course in later studies.”

The effect differed markedly between genders, the researchers found. Among males, neither self-reported test anxiety nor interest in the course correlated with final exam scores. But for female students—who, on average, reported higher anxiety and higher interest—final exam grades correlated with both factors. As the women’s interest in the material increased, so did their exam scores, whereas greater test anxiety diminished their exam performance.

Two possible fixes

These findings, the researchers say, point to two possible tactics to help minimize the gender gap in test scores.

First, past studies have found that replacing a few high-stakes exams with more frequent low-stakes testing—and using other types of assessments to lessen the significance of exams—can reduce the impact of test anxiety.

Second, research indicates that more explicitly connecting the course material to students’ lives can make it more relevant and interesting to them, “and by nurturing their interest in science,” says Salehi, “we can create a buffer to shield women from the negative effects of test anxiety.”

Adopting strategies for mitigating test anxiety and choosing materials and methods that enhance students’ interest in science would make the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics pathway more accessible for all students, Salehi says.

“We want to figure out what kind of instructional methods will ensure that everyone can navigate successfully through these courses and have a wider range of career options.”

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