Male students may perform better than females in life science exams not because they have better academic ability, but due to the way the questions are designed, according to new research.
The study also found that high socioeconomic status students perform better than lower-status students on the same tests.
Researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) in the US found that females and males do equally well on exams that require mostly memorisation. The same holds true for low- and high-socioeconomic status students.
However, when tests include cognitively challenging questions that require elevated critical thinking, females and lower socioeconomic students score lower than their male or high-status peers, even though the students have equal academic ability, researchers said.
Over a three-year period, researchers looked at 87 undergraduate introductory biology exams taught by 26 instructors at a public research university. They included over 4,800 students in the analysis.
“At first glance, one might assume the differences in exam performance are based on academic ability. However, we controlled for this in our study by including the students’ incoming grade point averages in our analysis,” said Christian Wright from ASU.
“We were surprised to find that this gap emerged based on cognitive challenge level, and that this negatively affected women and lower socioeconomic students,” said Wright.
Researchers recommend using active learning practices to help close the gap, including clickers, classroom discussion and other tools known to enhance student learning and help students perform better on critical thinking questions.
According to Wright, psychological factors such as stereotype threat, which can impact cognitive load, or students having growth or fixed mindsets may be the reason why a gap emerges when they take more challenging exams that test critical thinking.
The findings were published in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education.