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Class Size Affects Women Participation in STEM Classrooms

The number of students attending a STEM classroom directly affects female participation in such classes, a new study by Auburn and Cornell University researchers revealed.

Published in the Bioscience journal, the study obtained data from 44 science courses across multiple institutions and examined more than 5,300 interactions between instructors and students over a two-year period.

The report found a dwindling pattern in female participation in STEM classrooms when the class size exceeds 120 students, which could potentially affect their academic success, such as critical thinking skills, increase anxiety and a lower sense of belonging in the classroom.

Lead author Cissy Ballen, an assistant professor at Auburn University, noted that when instructors used a diverse range of teaching strategies, women were more likely to attend classes after small-group discussions.

“We show that class size has the largest impact on female participation, with smaller classes leading to more equitable participation,” Ballen said.

Study co-author Kelly Zamudio, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, also noted that large classrooms are equally challenging for underrepresented minorities and first-generation students, along with women.

“What we show here is that the deficit is not with those students, but rather with the classroom. If you want participation by everyone, then the classroom has to be an equal, open arena for everyone,” Zamudio said.

Researchers recommended highlighting the importance of studying factors that either promote or counter equity-like Team-Based Learning, where students work together in small teams. It also called for putting a stop to the continued expansion of large introductory courses.

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