Our book, Urban Myths about Learning and Education, out now!

It has been a long wait (and lots of work) for Paul, Casper and myself, but now our book is on sale!

You can order the book here both in paper and as e-book, but you can buy also at

A review of our book:

“A marvelous compendium of plausible-sounding ideas about education that have seeped into popular culture, but have little or no scientific support. Carefully documented yet a pleasure to read, this book should be required reading in all teacher training programs.” -Daniel T. Willingham, Professor, University of Virginia


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I don’t wanna dance… Theory of Mind and why children suddenly stop singing or dancing for fun

This study gives an explanation for something many parens and teachers will recognize for sure: suddenly a lot of children when growing up stop doing stuff spontaneously. Stuff such as dancing, singing,… Why, if there is a party: won’t they dance? Some people may argue this is because of puberty hitting the child, but Chaplin and Norton argue this is because of the development of a Theory of Mind.

Do note, theory of mind is nothing bad by definition:

Theory of mind (ToM) is generally viewed as a positive development, typically beginning around age 4, with sharp increases between ages 5 and 6 and further development throughout school-age years. The overwhelming consensus is that ToM allows children to achieve success in the social world by interpreting human behavior and understanding cultural meanings and social norms, such that individuals with deficits in ToM have difficulty in social interaction and in determining the intentions of others.

But this maybe comes with a price as this study with 3- to 12-year olds shows, gains in Theory Of Mind decreases the desire to sing or dance:

Our results support our account that ToM appears to equip children with the ability to predict that others may not view their performance as favorably as they do, which is associated with decreased self-esteem—and avoiding the spotlight. Note that our data address a salient alternative explanation for our pattern of performance avoidance, one familiar to anyone interacting with socially awkward adolescents or preteens: As children enter puberty they experience a host of changes that decrease their desire to perform. However, our results show that the shift away from performance begins as early as age 4, years before children enter puberty—suggesting that these changes in later childhood are unlikely to account for our results.

Abstract of the study:

Theory of mind (ToM) allows children to achieve success in the social world by understanding others’ minds. A study with 3- to 12-year-olds, however, demonstrates that gains in ToM are linked to decreases in children’s desire to engage in performative behaviors associated with health and well-being, such as singing and dancing. One hundred and fifty-nine middle-class children from diverse backgrounds in a Northeastern U.S. metropolitan area completed the study in 2011. The development of ToM is associated with decreases in self-esteem, which in turn predicts decreases in children’s willingness to perform. This shift away from performance begins at age 4 (when ToM begins to develop), years before children enter puberty.

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Good read: L.A. school district demands iPad refund from Apple

An update in a ongoing story yesterday in the LA Times:

The Los Angeles Unified School District is seeking to recoup millions of dollars from technology giant Apple over a problem-plagued curriculum that was provided with iPads intended to be given to every student, teacher and administrator.

In essence:

  • The Pearson curriculum on L.A. Unified’s iPads never caught on and now district seeks refund
  • The L.A. Unified School District’s long-running, troubled saga with iPads continues

This is not per se telling us that tablets in education don’t work, but it is a warning to be aware of mass investments without evidence or without some critical thinking before buying. Don’t just make this story one of teachers who don’t want to adapt, if something doesn’t work (as it has been the case with some of the software in the project) than you can’t blame the teachers for not using it.

Read the whole article here.



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A way to be more popular as child? Try to understand others’ perspectives

A new meta-study published in Child Development shows that preschoolers and school-age children who are good at identifying what others want, think, and feel are more popular in school than their peers who aren’t as socially adept.

From the press release:

“Our study suggests that understanding others’ mental perspectives may facilitate the kind of interactions that help children become or remain popular,” notes Virginia Slaughter, professor of psychology and head of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, who led the study. Popularity was measured via nominations by classroom peers and ratings by teachers.

The ability to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling comes into play in interpersonal interactions and helps us understand complex social situations, such as when one person double crosses another or uses sarcasm. This is also called theory of mind. While individual studies have shown an association with popularity in the past, this meta-analysis looked across the findings of multiple studies, increasing confidence that the overall pattern is clear.

In this work, researchers looked at 20 studies that addressed the relation between theory of mind and popularity. Together, the studies included 2,096 children from 2 to 10 years old from Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. In all but three of the studies, most of the children were Caucasian, and although children across the 20 studies were from a mix of working-, middle-, and upper-class families, they were predominantly middle class.

In addition to finding an overall link between children’s abilities to figure out what others think and feel and their popularity, the study found that this tie was similar for preschoolers and for older children. This suggests that understanding others’ mental perspectives is important both for making friends in the early school years and for maintaining friendships as children grow older.

The study also found that the link was weaker for boys than girls, perhaps reflecting gender differences in how children relate to each other. For example, girls’ friendships are often characterized by high levels of intimacy and resolving conflicts, which may mean that their interactions require more sensitivity in understanding others’ thoughts and feelings.

“Our findings suggest that training children to be sensitive to others’ thoughts and feelings may improve their relationships with peers,” Slaughter adds. “This may be particularly important for children who are struggling with friendship issues, such as children who are socially isolated.”

Abstract of the meta-study:

It has been argued that children who possess an advanced theory of mind (ToM) are viewed positively by their peers, but the empirical findings are mixed. This meta-analysis of 20 studies including 2,096 children (aged from 2 years, 8 months to 10 years) revealed a significant overall association (= .19) indicating that children with higher ToM scores were also more popular in their peer group. The effect did not vary with age. The effect was weaker for boys (= .12) compared to girls (= .30). ToM was more strongly associated with popularity (= .23) than with rejection (= .13). These findings confirm that ToM development has significant implications for children’s peer relationships.

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How our brain learns words quickly: after learning new words, our brain sees them as pictures

Learning new things is fascinating and research tries to get a grip on what happens (in the hope that we’ll be able to support learning better). This new study unravels how our brain learns words quickly, by chunking them into an image.

From the press release:

Neurons respond differently to real words, such as turf, than to nonsense words, such as turt, showing that a small area of the brain is “holistically tuned” to recognize complete words, says the study’s senior author, Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD, who leads the GUMC Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience.

“We are not recognizing words by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have suggested. Instead, neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary,” he says.

This small area in the brain, called the visual word form area, is found in the left side of the visual cortex, opposite from the fusiform face area on the right side, which remembers how faces look. “One area is selective for a whole face, allowing us to quickly recognize people, and the other is selective for a whole word, which helps us read quickly,” Riesenhuber says.

The study asked 25 adult participants to learn a set of 150 nonsense words. The brain plasticity associated with learning was investigated with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), both before and after training.

Using a specific fMRI technique know as fMRI-rapid adaptation, the investigators found that the visual word form area changed as the participants learned the nonsense words. Before training the neurons responded like the training words were nonsense words, but after training the neurons responded to the learned words like they were real words. “This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain’s plasticity,” says the study’s lead author, Laurie Glezer, PhD.

The findings not only help reveal how the brain processes words, but also provides insights into how to help people with reading disabilities, says Riesenhuber. “For people who cannot learn words by phonetically spelling them out — which is the usual method for teaching reading — learning the whole word as a visual object may be a good strategy.”

In fact, after the team’s first groundbreaking study on the visual dictionary was published in Neuron in 2009, Riesenhuber says they were contacted by a number of people who had experienced reading difficulties and teachers helping people with reading difficulties, reporting that learning word as visual objects helped a great deal. That study revealed the existence of a neural representation for whole written real words — also known as an orthographic lexicon –the current study now shows how novel words can become incorporated after learning in this lexicon.

“The visual word form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together,” he says. “The fact that this kind of learning only happens in one very small part of the brain is a nice example of selective plasticity in the brain.”

Abstract of the study:

The nature of orthographic representations in the human brain is still subject of much debate. Recent reports have claimed that the visual word form area (VWFA) in left occipitotemporal cortex contains an orthographic lexicon based on neuronal representations highly selective for individual written real words (RWs). This theory predicts that learning novel words should selectively increase neural specificity for these words in the VWFA. We trained subjects to recognize novel pseudowords (PWs) and used fMRI rapid adaptation to compare neural selectivity with RWs, untrained PWs (UTPWs), and trained PWs (TPWs). Before training, PWs elicited broadly tuned responses, whereas responses to RWs indicated tight tuning. After training, TPW responses resembled those of RWs, whereas UTPWs continued to show broad tuning. This change in selectivity was specific to the VWFA. Therefore, word learning appears to selectively increase neuronal specificity for the new words in the VWFA, thereby adding these words to the brain’s visual dictionary.

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Are shared iPads better than an iPad for every pupil?

Yesterday I found the press release of this new study with an interesting premise: kindergartners who share iPads in class score higher on achievement tests than both kids who don’t have tablets or kids in classes with for every kid a tablet. The study isn’t published as peer reviewed paper yet, so I mailed the institution for the study, which they sent to me last night.

First a short introduction to the study, before my comments, from the press release:

Using tech, like iPads, in schools has turned into a heated political debate. Los Angeles infamously spent $1.3 billion on a program to give iPads to each student that has subsequently been plagued with problems. In the United Kingdom the head of the National Association of Head Teachers claimed he was dubious about using tech as a teaching aid in non-IT classes. One solution could be using shared tech in classrooms. A promising study by a researcher at Northwestern University found that kindergartners in classes with shared iPads significantly outscored their peers on achievement tests who were in classes that had no iPads or classes with iPads for each student (1:1).

Courtney Blackwell from Northwestern University will present her findings at the 65th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Blackwell worked with 352 students at a Midwestern suburban school district that was phasing in 1:1 iPads into their kindergarten classrooms, creating a natural experiment where classrooms in one school had 1:1 iPads; classrooms in a second school had 23 iPads to share, where kids primarily used them in pairs; and classrooms in a third school had no iPads. She looked at the effect that using 1:1 iPads for one academic year (9 months), compared to the other two conditions, had on student literacy (as measured by the STAR Early Literacy Assessment).

Results showed that students in shared iPad classrooms significantly outscored their peers in 1:1 and non-iPad classrooms on the spring achievement test, even after controlling for baseline scores and student demographics. Blackwell found that shared iPad students scored approximately 30 points higher than 1:1 iPad students and non-iPad users.

There has been little quantitative research done measuring the effects of young children’s academic achievement and this is the first study to examine the effect that sharing iPads can have on young students.

“1:1 tablet computers may not be the most effective way to use technology for all grades and from a policy standpoint, we need to rethink what developmentally appropriate technology use is for young children,” said Blackwell. “Shared iPad students significantly outperformed both the 1:1 and non-iPad condition, suggesting it’s the collaborative learning around the technology that made the difference, not just the collaboration in and of itself. While schools and districts may still want to go 1:1 in all grades, they may reconsider how the tablets are used, especially in earlier grades, in order to make the technology most effective.”

They study has it’s limitations, as the 3 groups of classes aren’t really randomly chosen. It’s more a case of smart using a situation. Courtney Blackwell from Northwestern University, the student who wrote the paper has corrected many of the possible influences which may have an impact, still it’s a pity that one still can think that it’s just because school B with the shared iPads was just doing better because of other reasons. Also do note that the effects of the shared iPads while significant were still small to moderate at 0.39 and 0.46.

But I do think Blackwell is may on to something but maybe not per se because of the reason she mentions in the press release.

Other explanations are also possible:

  • the teachers, because of less iPads available will use them more to the point,
  • children correct each other in focusing on the right task when using the tablets (a problem mentioned in some other studies Blackwell mentions)

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Funny on Sunday: the new streamlined approach to peer review

Found this cartoon via this tweet by @went1955.

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Addition to my most popular blog post ever: So you want to compare educational systems from different countries?


There is an old blog post that’s still the most popular post every single week: So you want to compare educational systems from different countries? Where to start?

This new UNESO-report is a great addition to the list on this blog post. I share here the 7 report-cards (which show we still have a long way to go…)




Goal 1. Expand early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable children.

Forty seven percent of countries reached the goal and another eight percent were close. Twenty percent were very far from the goal. Yet, in 2012, nearly two-thirds more children were enrolled in early childhood education than in 1999.

Goal 2. Achieve universal primary education, particularly for girls, ethnic minorities and marginalized children.

Fifty-two percent of countries achieved this goal; ten percent are close and the remaining thirty-eight percent are far or very far from achieving it. This leaves almost 100 million children not completing primary education in 2015. A lack of focus on the marginalized has left the poorest five times less likely to complete a full cycle of primary education than the richest and over a third of out of school children living in conflict affected zones.

There have been important successes: Around 50 million more children are enrolled in school now than were in 1999. Education is still not free in many places, but cash transfer and school feeding programmes have had a positive impact on school enrolment for the poor.

Goal 3. Ensure equal access to learning and life skills for youth and adults.

Forty-six percent of countries reached universal lower secondary enrolment.  Globally, numbers in lower secondary education increased by 27% and more than doubled in sub-Saharan Africa.  Nonetheless, one third of adolescents in low income countries will not complete lower secondary school in 2015.

Goal 4. Achieving a 50 per cent reduction in levels of adult illiteracy by 2015.

Only 25% of countries reached this goal; 32% remain very far from it. While globally the percentage of illiterate adults fell from 18% in 2000 to 14% in 2015, this progress is almost entirely attributed to more educated young people reaching adulthood. Women continue to make up almost two-thirds of the illiterate adult population. Half of sub-Saharan African women do not have basic literacy skills.

Goal 5. Achieve gender parity and equality

Gender parity will be achieved at the primary level in 69% of countries by 2015. At secondary level, only 48% of countries will reach the goal. Child marriage and early pregnancy continue to hinder girls’ progress in education as does the need for teacher training in gender sensitive approaches and curriculum reform.

Goal 6. Improve the quality of education and ensure measurable learning outcomes for all

The numbers of pupils per teacher decreased in 121 of 146 countries between 1990 and 2012 at the primary level, but 4 million more teachers are still needed to get all children into school. Trained teachers remain in short supply in one third of countries; in several sub-Saharan African countries, less than 50 percent are trained. However, education quality has received increased attention since 2000; the number of countries carrying out national learning assessments has doubled.

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Why do some people master a new skill quickly while others require extra time or practice?

We’ve debunked the 10000 hours myth already a couple of times but why are some people able to master a new skill quickly while others require extra time or practice? A new study has a maybe surprising answer…because their brains work less (or rather more efficient)? Do note that the amount of people participating in this study is rather low, 20 participants.

From the press release (bold by me):

Why are some people able to master a new skill quickly while others require extra time or practice? That was the question posed by UC Santa Barbara’s Scott Grafton and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University.

To find the answer, the team designed a study that measured the connections between different brain regions while participants learned to play a simple game.

The researchers discovered that the neural activity in the quickest learners was different from that of the slowest. Their analysis provides new insight into what happens in the brain during the learning process and sheds light on the role of interactions between different regions. The findings, which appear online today in Nature Neuroscience, suggest that recruiting unnecessary parts of the brain for a given task — similar to overthinking the problem — plays a critical role in this important difference.

“It’s useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit,” said Grafton, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. “When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning.”

At UCSB’s Brain Imaging Center, study participants played a simple game while their brains were scanned with fMRI. The technique measures neural activity by tracking the flow of blood in the brain, highlighting which regions are involved in a given task.

Participants responded to a sequence of color-coded notes by pressing the corresponding button on a hand-held controller. Six predetermined sequences of 10 notes each were shown multiple times during the scanning sessions. Subjects were instructed to play the sequences as quickly and as accurately as possible, responding to the cues they saw on a screen.

The study continued with participants practicing at home while researchers monitored their activity remotely. Subjects returned to the Brain Imaging Center at two-, four- and six-week intervals for new scans that demonstrated how well practice had helped them master the skill. Completion time for all participants dropped over the course of the study but did so at different rates. Some picked up the sequences immediately, while others gradually improved over the six-week period.

The complexities of learning

Lead author Danielle Bassett, an expert in network science, developed novel analysis methods to determine what was happening in the participants’ brains that correlated with these differences. But rather than trying to find a single spot in the brain that was more or less active, the team investigated the learning process as the function of a complex, dynamic network involving various regions of the brain.

“We weren’t using the traditional fMRI approach where you pick a region of interest and see if it lights up,” said Bassett, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. “We looked at the whole brain at once and saw which parts were communicating with each other the most.”

The investigators compared the activation patterns of 112 anatomical regions of the brain and measured the degree to which they mirrored one another. The more the patterns of two regions matched, the more they were considered to be in communication. By graphing those connections, the team found that hotspots of highly interconnected regions emerged.

“When network scientists look at these graphs, they see what is known as community structure,” Bassett said. “There are sets of nodes in a network that are really densely interconnected to each other. Everything else is either independent or very loosely connected with only a few lines.”

The team used a technique known as dynamic community detection, a method that employs algorithms to determine which nodes are incorporated into these clusters and how their interactions change over time. This allowed the researchers to measure how common it was for any two nodes to remain in the same cluster while subjects practiced the same sequence some 10 times. Through these comparisons, they found overarching trends about how regions responsible for different functions worked together.

The researchers discovered that the visual and the motor blocks had a lot of connectivity during the first few trials, but as the experiment progressed they became essentially autonomous. For example, the part of the brain that controls finger movement and the part that processes visual stimulus didn’t really interact at all by the end of the experiment.

According to Grafton, in some ways this trend was not surprising since the team was essentially seeing the learning process on the neurological level, with the participants’ brains reorganizing the flow of activity as they mastered this new skill.

“Previous brain imaging research has mostly looked at skill learning over — at most — a few days of practice, which is silly,” said Grafton, who is also a member of UCSB’s Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies. “Who ever learned to play the violin in an afternoon? By studying the effects of dedicated practice over many weeks, we gain insight into never before observed changes in the brain. These reveal fundamental insights into skill learning that are akin to the kinds of learning we must achieve in the real world.”

Comparing executive function

With the neurological correlates of the learning process coming into focus, the scientists were able to delve into the differences among participants in order to explain why some learned the sequences faster than others. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the participants who showed decreased neural activity learned the fastest. The critical distinction was in areas not directly related to seeing the cues or playing the notes: the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

These cognitive control centers are thought to be most responsible for what is known as executive function. “This neurological trait is associated with making and following through with plans, spotting and avoiding errors and other higher-order types of thinking,” Grafton said. “In fact, good executive function is necessary for complex tasks but might actually be a hindrance to mastering simple ones.”

Grafton also noted that the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are among the last brain regions to fully develop in humans, which may help explain why children are able to acquire new skills quickly as compared to adults.

“It’s the people who can turn off the communication to these parts of their brain the quickest who have the steepest drop-off in their completion times,” said Bassett. “It seems like those other parts are getting in the way for the slower learners. It’s almost like they’re trying too hard and overthinking it.”

Additional studies will delve into why some people are better than others at shutting down the connections in these parts of the brains.

Abstract of the study:

Distributed networks of brain areas interact with one another in a time-varying fashion to enable complex cognitive and sensorimotor functions. Here we used new network-analysis algorithms to test the recruitment and integration of large-scale functional neural circuitry during learning. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging data acquired from healthy human participants, we investigated changes in the architecture of functional connectivity patterns that promote learning from initial training through mastery of a simple motor skill. Our results show that learning induces an autonomy of sensorimotor systems and that the release of cognitive control hubs in frontal and cingulate cortices predicts individual differences in the rate of learning on other days of practice. Our general statistical approach is applicable across other cognitive domains and provides a key to understanding time-resolved interactions between distributed neural circuits that enable task performance.

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Best Evidence in Brief: family instability increases drop-out rates

Maybe you’ll think: no shit, Sherlock? But still, the result of this British study by Hampden-Thompson and Galindo that I found via Best Evidence in Brief may also be quite depressing if you are in a divorce or have been divorced with kids.

From Best Evidence in Brief:

A new study has shown that young people who experienced instability in family structure were 33% less likely to stay in education than those who lived in stable married biological families.

The research, published in the British Educational Research Journal, used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE), which has tracked the progress of 10,783 young people and their parents. This was combined with information from the National Pupil Database (NPD), which contains longitudinal student achievement data.

Students who had experienced a change in family structure between 2004 and 2007 were significantly less likely to stay in school after the age of 16 than those who did not. In other findings, the study found no discernible difference between children living in cohabiting biological families and those living in married biological families. However, children living in a cohabiting family that included one biological parent were less likely to stay in school than those from two-biological-parent married families.

After accounting for covariates such as family socioeconomic status, the analysis revealed that children from stable lone-parent households were as likely to remain in education after the age of 16 as were children in stable married biological families.

In terms of informing policy, the study shows the importance of identifying the multiple risk factors that children may face. Much research has focused on the importance of poverty, but other factors independent of income can also have an influence.

Abstract of the study:

Research in the area of family structure and educational outcomes has often failed to account for instability in family structure. Furthermore, prior research in this area has been dominated by North American studies with a smaller body emerging from Europe. This study draws upon 10,783 young people and their parents from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England to examine the association between family structure and family structure instability on post-16 educational persistence. Multivariate models indicate that family structure instability has a negative impact on educational persistence. After controlling for covariates, young people who had experienced family structure instability were 33% less likely to stay in education than young people who resided in married biological families during the four years prior to the end of compulsory schooling. The findings of this research provide evidence that young people who have experienced a change in family circumstances during these four years are potentially at risk of dropping out of school – this is the case irrespective of the nature of the change. Once covariates were accounted for, young people who resided in stable lone-parent households were just as likely as those in stable married biological families to continue to post-16 education. Analyses were also conducted to determine the educational persistence of young people from biological vs step-cohabitating families.

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Promising intervention for girls in STEM? Teams with a critical mass of women lets them ‘lean in’

It’s a hot topic in many countries: how to get more students to choose for STEM-subjects, especially women:

…a research team led by Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reports one promising intervention, based on their research study of 120 undergraduate engineering students. They found among other things that women, particularly first-year students, participate more actively and feel less anxious when they are able to work in small groups or “microenvironments” that are mostly female or that have equal numbers of men and women compared to mostly male groups.

Still, I think it’s not really a solution, as this study is done with students who already chose for engineering… Still the study is relevant for other reasons.

From the press release:

Nilanjana Dasgupta explains, “The important thing we found in this experiment is that even in learning environments where women are a tiny minority, if we can create work teams or learning teams, basically small groups with a high percentage of women, those promote women’s success by reducing worry and anxiety, increasing women willingness to speak up and ‘lean in,’ to use Facebook CEO Cheryl Sandberg’s phrase. This allows women to speak up and not worry what others think, increases confidence about their ability and ultimately lets them aspire to a career in these fields.”

Results of this National Science Foundation-supported study appear today in an early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For this work, the researchers randomly assigned female engineering students to one of three, four-person groups of varying composition, 75 percent, 50 percent, or 25 percent women. Each group had one real study participant, always female, who was unaware that the others were engineering research assistants (RA) trained to behave in a consistent manner. The RAs evaluated the real participants’ verbal behavior in the team.

The participant privately reported her worries, anxieties, confidence in her engineering ability, how visible she felt in the group, and her career aspirations after the team work sessions. Dasgupta and colleagues tested competing hypotheses about which gender mix would benefit women most.

The researchers found that in male-dominated fields like engineering where teamwork is common, the gender composition of small teams plays a major role in women’s success. Having a high concentration of women in engineering teams allows women, particularly first-year students, to participate more actively, shrug off worries, feel confident, and aspire toward engineering careers after the team experience compared to other teams where women were a small minority or the only one.

A second interesting finding is that although teams with equal numbers of men and women reduced women’s worries and anxieties in engineering, they were not sufficient to encourage speaking up. Only in teams with a majority of female peers did women show a substantial uptick in speaking up, the lead author notes. This was true for first-year students as much as for advanced students.

Dasgupta, “My take on these findings is that gender parity helped in some ways, but it couldn’t address all the problems. We often assume that if the playing field is level, with equal numbers of women and men, women will participate. But in fields where strong gender stereotypes already exist, it’s not enough. Overriding gender stereotypes sometimes requires creating ‘microenvironments’ that have more than gender parity. This may involve the occasional experience of working in small teams with a high concentration of female peers that encourage women to jump in, speak up and help their team solve technical problems.”

She adds, “For young women in STEM fields who are a tiny minority in their majors, we need to create work teams or learning teams where they can focus on learning and mastery without worrying about what others think of them. I think these findings have important implication for many male-dominated fields like physical sciences, computing, technology and business. I use engineering as a case in point in this study, but the main take aways can be generalized.”

These results have implications for three key groups, the UMass Amherst researcher says. For educators, “it means when teaching involves team learning, which is a big trend now in K-12, college and beyond, in male-dominated fields, we need to pay attention to team makeup to ensure that women reach their full potential.”

For business managers, “it means they should pay attention to the makeup of their project teams to ensure that female employees’ talents are being used, not lost, and that women feel empowered to speak up.”

For parents, “it means ensuring that their daughters have a critical mass of other girls around them when they are involved in after-school activities and summer programs that focus on science and technology.”

Abstract of the study:

For years, public discourse in science education, technology, and policy-making has focused on the “leaky pipeline” problem: the observation that fewer women than men enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields and more women than men leave. Less attention has focused on experimentally testing solutions to this problem. We report an experiment investigating one solution: we created “microenvironments” (small groups) in engineering with varying proportions of women to identify which environment increases motivation and participation, and whether outcomes depend on students’ academic stage. Female engineering students were randomly assigned to one of three engineering groups of varying sex composition: 75% women, 50% women, or 25% women. For first-years, group composition had a large effect: women in female-majority and sex-parity groups felt less anxious than women in female-minority groups. However, among advanced students, sex composition had no effect on anxiety. Importantly, group composition significantly affected verbal participation, regardless of women’s academic seniority: women participated more in female-majority groups than sex-parity or female-minority groups. Additionally, when assigned to female-minority groups, women who harbored implicit masculine stereotypes about engineering reported less confidence and engineering career aspirations. However, in sex-parity and female-majority groups, confidence and career aspirations remained high regardless of implicit stereotypes. These data suggest that creating small groups with high proportions of women in otherwise male-dominated fields is one way to keep women engaged and aspiring toward engineering careers. Although sex parity works sometimes, it is insufficient to boost women’s verbal participation in group work, which often affects learning and mastery.

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