Class Size Influences Womens’ Success in STEM

The latest research study by Cissy Ballen et. al. and published in BioScience investigates the factors that influence the performance gap we see in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) classes between men and women. The culprit? A metric that’s common at colleges and universities: class size.

Previous research shows that women participate less than we’d expect based on the proportion of a class they make up. But what elements in particular are the culprit? Was it due to the upper-level/lower-level divide? The gender of the instructor? The volume of interactions in the class?

Ballen et. al. investigated these and several others, but found that the aspect that had the greatest negative impact was class size. As class size increased, women’s rate of participation decreased.

Apart from the obvious, why should we care about this? For two reasons. First, pedagogy in higher education has seen a shift away from lecture-style classes toward more student-engaged models. If women are participating at lower rates, then they run the risk of not being able to learn to their fullest potential.

But second, keep in mind the budget pressures that many higher education institutions are facing today, especially in the Northeast. Larger classes are cheaper, quite frankly, and so are an attractive option to a Department Chair, or a Dean, or a Provost, or a CFO whose eyes are focused on the bottom line.

Before making that decision, institutions might want to take a look at their average class sizes in STEM fields, and how well women are doing compared to men on their own campus.

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