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ASU study suggests that there is a gender confidence gap in classrooms

The study suggests that males are more confident in the classroom than their female counterparts


"Classroom experiences can be different depending on gender." Illustration published on Tuesday, April 17, 2018.

Males are more likely to perceive themselves as smart in the classroom than their female counterparts, according to a study from ASU researchers in the biology education research lab. The study highlights the perception students have of themselves compared to other students in their classes.

Sara Brownell, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, is one of the authors of the study. Brownell said the motivation for this study was students' self-concious reaction after science lectures transitioned from professors standing and talking at the front of the room the whole class period to an active learning environment, where students work more with one another.

Brownell said that education researchers like herself found that students sometimes have a fear of being perceived as “stupid” by other students or that they will say something wrong.

"What we’ve noticed when we’ve talked to students is students talk about this fear of basically being perceived as stupid by other students," Brownell said. "This is the language that they actually use, so they’re thinking that other students are going to think that they’re stupid and worry if they’ll say something wrong, so we wanted to explore this phenomenon."

Overall, the research team wanted to analyze a student's confidence compared to their colleagues. 

“We basically wanted to know what students' perceptions of their own abilities were compared to other students,” Brownell said. “It's different than their confidence; overall, it's a confidence in their ability compared to someone else.

Katelyn Cooper, a graduate student in the in the School of Life Sciences, also authored the study.

Cooper said the researchers conducted these studies in a biology lecture not only because biology is their field of interest, but also because unlike other sciences where males are the majority, there tend to be more women in biology classrooms.

Brownell said researchers deployed a survey at the beginning of the class and asked questions about students’ demographics. They collected data like students' gender, if they are a native English speaker and self-reported anxiety. 

They then deployed a second survey right before the first exam in the class. 

The researchers asked the students in the lecture essentially two questions: What percentage of the class they think they are smarter than, and if they think the person who they work most closely with in the class during discussions is smarter or less smart than the student taking the survey. 

“We found a gender difference,” Brownell said. “We found that men were more likely to think that they were smarter than that person that they worked most closely with in class, and men also thought that they were smarter than a higher percentage of the class than women.”

Cooper said that if there are two students with the exact same 3.2 GPA, the male is predicted to perceive that he's smarter than 66 percent of students in his physiology class, whereas the female students tend to think that they’re only smarter than 54 percent of the students in the class.

“We really want to just work on closing that gap,” Cooper said. “Female students should be more confident.”

Karen Leong, an associate professor in the School of Social Transformation, said that women are not as encouraged as men to join scientific fields, creating a negative gap and discouraging other women to join due to a lack of representation. 

Leong said that in order to close this gender divide, teachers can be trained to add structure in classrooms that encourages all students to talk. 

“There have been studies that suggest that young men are called on more likely when it comes to science and math because people just assume they know more, and that can lead them to have more confidence that they know more than their female counterparts,” Leong said.

Brownell said that instructors can not only create more structure in classrooms to encourage students to participate, but also make students aware of this gender confidence disparity.

Brownell said that she has seen males take the role of leader in small discussion groups, which can negatively impact female self-confidence in classrooms if this continues to occur.

“If you are taking on the leadership role, you are doing more of the talking, and you might actually learn more from that group,” Brownell said. “This is sort of the next study in a long succession of studies that basically shows that there are gender differences in biology and that these gaps exist and we need to close these gaps somehow. “ 

Brownell said that this research is far from over and needs to be replicated.

“We want to replicate this study in lots of different college classrooms in different types of institutions with different instructors to see if these gaps are similar in other contexts,” Brownell said.

Reach the reporters at and or follow @jessiemy94 and @mitchellatencio on Twitter. 

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