April 9, 2021

Happy Friday before “spring break” CNS Instructors,

This week’s teaching tip comes from and article titled “What Is Your Class Telling You? on the University of Washington Trends and Issues in Higher Ed website Innovators Archive page. The article focuses on techniques to improve gender equity in classes.  The author Ben Wiggins is faculty coordinator for instruction and a biology lecturer.  Wiggins and other instructors developed strategies to counteract achievement and participation gaps between male and female students in biology uncovered by research with colleagues (Eddy et al. 2014 and Grunspan et al. 2016).  They conducted social network analyses asking students who were strong students in their course. Their findings uncovered a bias toward male students in courses with significantly more female than male students.  The male students’ perceptions of who were strong students did not jive with actual performance.  Male students tended to nominate male students as strong students while female students were generally unbiased. Allowing this negative stereotype help by male students to persist will likely result in accumulation across their college careers and into the workforce. The article provides three suggestions to minimize the gender gap in your class:

Random calling helps address the common problem of implicit bias

Research on teaching has shown that gender biases commonly creep into how instructors run their classes. “As an instructor, it’s likely that I don’t call on people in a gender-equitable way, even if I’m thinking about it, even if I have a lot of experience,” says Wiggins. “If you want to make classes more gender equitable, you have to take your own biases out of it.” Therefore, Wiggins regularly employs a method known as random call to improve equity in class participation. It is a method long used in teaching, and the work of Eddy, Brownell and Wenderoth (2014) confirmed that random calling rather than choosing students or asking for volunteers can also equalize the environment of the college classroom. “Where everybody is equally likely to be called on, everyone is more active. Students can’t avoid being called on by staying in the back,” Wiggins says. Involving more students beyond those who are naturally more inclined to be “outspoken”—a measure the researchers determined by asking instructors to rank students they recalled as speaking up most in class—can potentially influence the perceptions of other students about who is doing well in the class, one element affecting self-confidence. “But more importantly, it randomizes who is doing the talking,” notes Wiggins. “It may help to alleviate this prestige gap that we see.”

Random calling can offer more equitable opportunities for positive reinforcement

Women in particular can benefit from seeing more women speak up with the right answer or successfully handle being wrong—with no adverse effects on males in the classroom. As students transition into a career, beginning with an introductory biology class, women are particularly vulnerable to threats to their self-confidence, which is closely linked to persistence in STEM and is known to be heavily influenced by social interactions such as classroom participation. Getting an answer right or wrong in an introductory biology class may seem like a small thing to affect a student’s persistence in a chosen field, but “It’s the day-to-day interactions that matter,” explains Eddy. “The minute someone defers to you, you feel like you’re an expert.”

Moving students from a “fixed mindset” about intelligence to a “growth mindset” may help

Persistence and confidence are also closely linked to what students believe about their ability to grow their intellectual capacity and learn from being wrong. Noted psychologist and Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has shown that simple interventions, such as asking people to reflect and write about their values and motivations, can change people’s mindset, and “rewire” the brain to a growth mindset. “One hypothesis is that perhaps more females are coming in with a fixed mindset while more males are coming in with a growth mindset,” says Grunspan. Moving forward, the UW researchers plan to test the effects of interventions on introductory biology classes.

Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions for future MTI teaching tips.

Cheers, Paul


What is your class telling you? Trends and Issues in Higher Ed, University of Washington, March 8, 2016. https://www.washington.edu/trends/what-is-your-class-telling-you/

Eddy, Sarah L., Sara E. Brownell, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Gender gaps in achievement and participation in multiple introductory biology classrooms.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 13.3 (2014): 478-492.

Grunspan, Daniel Z., Sarah L. Eddy, Sara E. Brownell, Benjamin L. Wiggins, Alison J. Crowe and Steven M. Goodreau. “Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms” PLOS ONE February 10, 2016, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0148405

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences