A recent study published in the Advances in Physiology Education journal showed that gender was an important factor in how people gauged their own intelligence, especially when they compared themselves to others.
What originally brought Katelyn Cooper, a doctoral student in Arizona State University School of Life Sciences and lead author of the study, to compare this self-perception to gender were her conversations with hundreds of students as an academic advisor.
In an article titled Who’s smarter in the classroom — men or women?” that was published on Arizona State’s multimedia website ASU Now, Cooper stated, “I would ask students about how their classes were going and I noticed a trend. ” She emphasizes noticing that female students often doubted their intellectual capacity.
“Over and over again, women would tell me that they were afraid that other students thought that they were ‘stupid,’” Copper commented. “I never heard this from the men in those same biology classes, so I wanted to study it.”
The focus of this study was academic self-concept — perception of one’s own ability in a specific academic domain. This self-concept develops from one’s experiences within a learning environment, including academic interactions with peers and instructors.
The study looked at students in a large-enrollment upper-level physiology course. The class was structured in a way that focused on the implementation of group work and clicker questions. The class met three times a week for 50 minutes each.
During the first week of class, all students were asked to complete a demographic survey. They were asked about their gender, race and ethnicity, whether they were native English speakers and if they transferred to their current institution from a two-year institution. Students were also asked a yes or no question about whether they had ever struggled with an anxiety disorder.
The students were surveyed again at the end of the seventh week of class. At that point in the course, relationships with other students had been established. However, the first exam was not yet given. Researchers conducted surveys at this point in the course so that first exam grades would not affect the answers.
To determine students’ academic self-concept relative to the whole class, all students recorded the percentage of the class they thought was smarter than them in the context of physiology. They were also asked if they regularly studied with someone else in the class. For those who had, the results from the surveys were compared between people who studied together as well as with the general population of the study.
On average, men were significantly more likely than women to have a higher academic self-concept relative to the whole class. Controlling all other variables, the average man with a 3.3 GPA was predicted to perceive that he was smarter than 66 percent of students in the physiology class, whereas the average woman with a 3.3 GPA was predicted to perceive that she was smarter than only 54 percent of the other students.
Men were also more likely than women to have higher academic self-concept relative to their groupmate. The men were 3.2 times more likely to perceive they were smarter than their groupmate than the women. The average man had a 61 percent chance of perceiving that he was smarter than his groupmate, whereas the average woman only had a 33 percent chance of perceiving that she was smarter than her groupmate.
“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,” Sara Brownell, an assistant professor at the school as well as the senior author of the study, said in an ASU article. “These false perceptions of self-intelligence could be a negative factor in the retention of women in science.”
“This is not an easy problem to fix,” Cooper added. “It’s a mindset that has likely been ingrained 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.”
As more modern-day classes focus on student interaction, instructors may review this study to see how academic self-concept affects how students perceive their intellectual achievements.