Equity and Access

Published in the Research School of Physics Event Horizon
Vol43 Issue2 30 January–3 February 2017

From the RSPE Equity and Access Committee:

Gender, experience, and self-efficacy in introductory physics

There is growing evidence of persistent gender achievement gaps in university physics instruction, not only for learning physics content, but also for developing productive attitudes and beliefs about learning physics. These gaps occur in both traditional and interactive-engagement (IE) styles of physics instruction. We investigated one gender gap in the area of attitudes and beliefs. This was men’s and women’s physics self-efficacy, which comprises students’ thoughts and feelings about their capabilities to succeed as learners in physics. According to extant research using pre- and post-course surveys, the self-efficacy of both men and women tends to be reduced after taking traditional and IE physics courses. Moreover, self-efficacy is reduced further for women than for men. However, it remains unclear from these studies whether this gender difference is caused by physics instruction. It may be, for instance, that the greater reduction of women’s self-efficacy in physics merely reflects a broader trend in university education that has little to do with physics per se. We investigated this and other alternative causes, using an in-the-moment measurement technique called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). We used ESM to collect multiple samples of university students’ feelings of self-efficacy during four types of activity for two one-week periods: (i) an introductory IE physics course, (ii) students’ other introductory STEM courses, (iii) their non-STEM courses, and (iv) their activities outside of school. We found that women experienced the IE physics course with lower self-efficacy than men, but for the other three activity types, women’s self-efficacy was not reliably different from men’s. We therefore concluded that the experience of physics instruction in the IE physics course depressed women’s self-efficacy. Using complementary measures showing the IE physics course to be similar to others in which gendered self-efficacy effects have been consistently observed, we further concluded that IE physics instruction in general is likely to be detrimental to women’s self-efficacy. Consequently, there is a clear need to redress this inequity in IE physics, and probably also in traditional instruction.

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