Study concludes class size has a huge impact on female STEM participation

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With increasing numbers of females getting into tech careers, encouraging gender diversity in STEM fields has never been more important. And thanks to a study out of Cornell University, we now know that the secret to inspiring the next gen of STEMinists is to keep tertiary class sizes down.

Data collected from 44 science courses across multiple institutions – including Cornell, the University of Minnesota, Bethel University and American University in Cairo – suggests that it’s when enrolments hit 120, that class size begins to negatively impact female students.

“We show that class size has the largest impact on female participation, with smaller classes leading to more equitable participation,” says lead author Cissy Ballen, former postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. “We also found that women are most likely to participate after small-group discussions when instructors use diverse teaching strategies.”

The effects of active learning

Evidence-based active-learning techniques – think: case studies, role playing, group projects, peer teaching, debates and classroom discussions – were proven more effective in increasing female participation, as they allow a bigger classroom to function a little like a smaller one.

Study co-author Abby Drake, senior lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, alluded to her own experience in the research. She implemented team-based learning techniques in one of her introductory courses, dividing up students into smaller groups to solve problems.

“I reduced the faculty-to-student ratio from more than 1:200 to 1:50,” Drake said of the change. “We created a small classroom climate within our large class and it fostered student success.”

Before the use of active learning and team-based learning, Drake’s classes would include upwards of 10 to 15 students receiving Ds, however since making adjustments, only two or three have failed to pass.

“If you want participation by everyone, then the classroom has to be an equal, open arena for everyone,” concludes another co-author Kelly Zamudio, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The deficit is not with those students, but rather with the classroom.”

And if getting more women into killer tech gigs all comes down to class size, then maybe it’s a change worth considering.

Consider yourself a STEMinist? Welcome to the club! Check out this inspiring female engineer.

Cassie Steel

Author: Cassie Steel

As Refraction’s digital editor, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.


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