Tech Geophysics is helpful to girls

Girls have to expect poor physics grades

Hofer asked secondary school physics teachers to grade an exam answer in an online test. She presented the 780 participants from Switzerland, Germany and Austria with the same question from the field of classical mechanics and the exactly formulated - only partially correct - fictitious student answer. However, the ETH scientist varied a brief introductory written explanation in the experiment: Half of the participants therefore assumed that they would have to grade the answer of “a student”, the other half that of “a student”. Hofer left the participants in the dark about the intention of their study. She pretended it was a cross-comparison of two different methods of correcting exams.

The participants rated the physics task differently. In her analysis Hofer compared the bandwidths of the grading of the alleged students with those of the alleged students. First of all, the good news: For teachers who have been teaching for at least ten years, the gender of the students has no influence on the grade. The bad news: teachers in Switzerland and Austria who have been teaching for less than ten years rate girls significantly worse than boys. As an example: For teachers with five years of professional experience or less, girls are disadvantaged on average by 0.7 grades (Switzerland) and 0.9 grades (Austria).

When to influence stereotypes

"Teachers with little professional experience may be guided more by the prejudice that girls are worse than boys in physics," says Hofer. Earlier studies provided evidence that girls in math and science subjects have to do more to get the same grade. Most of the time, however, the subject of mathematics was examined. For the subject of physics and the German-speaking area, this study is the most comprehensive and up-to-date.

It is known that prejudices or stereotypes have an influence on an evaluation if the evaluator does not have enough information available or if he is stressed or even overwhelmed, says Hofer. "Teachers with little experience are evidently more influenced by context information such as gender."

Inconsistent picture in Germany

The results of the new study for German secondary teachers with less than ten years of professional experience are peculiar: the teachers grade students equally, while the teachers behave like their Swiss and Austrian colleagues and grade students worse. For German teachers with five years of experience or less, the difference is 0.9 grades on average. Hofer and Elsbeth Stern, professor for empirical teaching and learning research, cannot explain this particular circumstance on the basis of the data collected. One possible explanation could be that the German (male) teachers are more sensitized to support programs for girls in the MINT subjects (mathematics, natural sciences, IT, technology) than their colleagues in the other countries examined. However, Hofer points out that there are such programs in all three countries.

In the introduction to the online test, the scientist varied not only the gender but also the specialization of the fictitious students in languages ​​or natural sciences. The specialization did not affect the grading.

Girls are not rewarded for effort

For ETH professor Stern, the poorer grades given to girls, which was shown in this study, are part of a fundamental problem: "Girls and women cannot rely on the fact that they will be rewarded for their efforts." Sometimes they would be graded too good, sometimes too bad. Their grades reflected actual performance less well than boys and men. That makes orientation difficult for them. "If you get the feeling at school as a girl that you are not getting a fair grade in the natural sciences, then you tend to lose interest in it," says Stern. Scientifically gifted women would unfortunately too often turn to other subjects in which they would receive greater support. This must also be taken into account in the STEM funding that is currently being promoted.

"Grades are the feedback that students get for their performance, and they have a major impact on their self-image, their motivation and their willingness to make an effort," says Hofer. "Teachers should therefore take grades very seriously," says Stern. In teacher training, therefore, even greater attention should be paid to grading. That will be done in the high school teacher training at ETH Zurich.

Basically, stereotypes should be critically questioned, especially at school, says Hofer. When correcting exam questions, a more structured approach with clear criteria can help teachers evaluate objectively and ignore stereotypes. "It would be important for teachers to use an evaluation scheme for each examination that specifies how many points are awarded for which partial answers and clearly defines what careless and consequential errors are." It is also helpful if teachers cover the student's name when making corrections.