This is a study that can fuel some discussions: in the college biology classroom, men perceive themselves as smarter, even when compared to women whose grades prove they are just as smart. But there is more in this study as the press release explains:
Katelyn Cooper, a doctoral student in the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences and lead author of the study, has talked with hundreds of students as an academic advisor and those conversations led to this project.
“I would ask students about how their classes were going and I noticed a trend,” shared Cooper. “Over and over again, women would tell me that they were afraid that other students thought that they were ‘stupid.’ I never heard this from the men in those same biology classes, so I wanted to study it.”
The ASU research team asked college students enrolled in a 250-person biology course about their intelligence. Specifically, the students were asked to estimate their own intelligence compared to everyone in the class and to the student they worked most closely with in class.
The researchers were surprised to find that women were far more likely to underestimate their own intelligence than men. And, when comparing a female and a male student, both with a GPA of 3.3, the male student is likely to say he is smarter than 66 percent of the class, and the female student is likely to say she is smarter than only 54 percent of the class.
In addition, when asked whether they are smarter than the person they worked most with in class, the pattern continued. Male students are 3.2 times more likely than females to say they are smarter than the person they are working with, regardless of whether their class partners are men or women.
A previous ASU study has shown that male students in undergraduate biology classes perceive men to be smarter than women about course material, but this is the first study to examine undergraduate student perceptions about their own intelligence compared to other people in the class.
Is this a problem?
“As we transition more of our courses into active learning classes where students interact more closely with each other, we need to consider that this might influence how students feel about themselves and their academic abilities,” shared Sara Brownell, senior author of the study and assistant professor in the school. “When students are working together, they are going to be comparing themselves more to each other. This study shows that women are disproportionately thinking that they are not as good as other students, so this a worrisome result of increased interactions among students.”
Brownell added that in a world where perceptions are important, female students may choose not to continue in science because they may not believe they are smart enough. These false perceptions of self-intelligence could be a negative factor in the retention of women in science.
Cooper said: “This is not an easy problem to fix. It’s a mindset that has likely been engrained in female students since they began their academic journeys. However, we can start by structuring group work in a way that ensures everyone’s voices are heard. One of our previous studies showed us that telling students it’s important to hear from everyone in the group could be enough to help them take a more equitable approach to group work.”
Abstract of the study:
Academic self-concept is one’s perception of his or her ability in an academic domain and is formed by comparing oneself to other students. As college biology classrooms transition from lecturing to active learning, students interact more with each other and are likely comparing themselves more to other students in the class. Student characteristics can impact students’ academic self-concept; however, this has been unexplored in the context of undergraduate biology. In this study, we explored whether student characteristics can affect academic self-concept in the context of an active learning college physiology course. Using a survey, students self-reported how smart they perceived themselves to be in the context of physiology relative to the whole class and relative to their groupmate, the student with whom they worked most closely in class. Using linear regression, we found that men and native English speakers had significantly higher academic self-concept relative to the whole class compared with women and nonnative English speakers. Using logistic regression, we found that men had significantly higher academic self-concept relative to their groupmate compared with women. Using constant comparison methods, we identified nine factors that students reported influenced how they determined whether they were more or less smart than their groupmate. Finally, we found that students were more likely to report participating more than their groupmate if they had a higher academic self-concept. These findings suggest that student characteristics can influence students’ academic self-concept, which in turn may influence their participation in small-group discussion and their academic achievement in active learning classes.