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Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation (Miyake et al. 2010)

Citation

Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L., Finkelstein, N., Pollock, S., Cohen, G., & Ito, T. (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation. Science, 330 (6008), 1234–1237.

Highlights

    • The study’s objective was to assess the effect of values affirmation on female students’ performance in an introductory college physics course.
    • Students in the course were randomly assigned to either a treatment group, in which they completed a writing exercise affirming their personal values, or a control group, in which they described values that might be important to others. The authors collected exam scores and course grades for students in both study groups.
    • The study found that, although male students’ exam scores remained higher than female students’ scores, the gender gap was significantly smaller for students in the values affirmation group than for students in the control group.
    • The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is low because it was a randomized controlled trial with high attrition that did not control for background characteristics likely to have affected the outcomes of interest. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects are attributable to values affirmation; other factors are likely to have contributed.

Intervention Examined

Values Affirmation

Features of the Intervention

To test the hypothesis that women underperform in scientific fields relative to men in response to perceived gender stereotypes, the authors sought to boost students’ self-esteem through a values affirmation writing exercise. During weeks one and four of a 15-week introductory physics course, students in the values affirmation group selected from a list the values that were most important to them and then completed a 15-minute writing exercise in which they explained why the values were important to them.

Features of the Study

Students in a 15-week introductory physics course at the University of Colorado-Boulder were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, in which they completed a values affirmation exercise, or to the control group, in which they completed a writing exercise describing values that might be important to others. The authors then examined men and women’s performance in the course within and across treatment groups using multiple regression analysis.

Findings

    • The study found that the gender gap in exam scores, both as an average across the course and for the final exam in isolation, was significantly smaller for students in the values affirmation group than for students in the control group.
    • Women in the values affirmation group were significantly more likely to earn Bs than women in the control group, who were more likely to earn Cs. The treatment had no impact on men’s grade distributions.
    • The authors determined that male and female students in the values affirmation group learned the same amount in the course, in which learning was measured as the difference between scores on a standardized physics test administered at the beginning and end of the term. In the control group, however, men learned significantly more than women.

Considerations for Interpreting the Findings

Although the authors designed the study as a randomized controlled trial, the group of students included in the analysis included only those who followed the writing exercise instructions correctly, completed the online survey regarding gender stereotypes in physics, and had valid Scholastic Achievement Test/American College Test math data available. Including only a subset of those originally randomized in the analysis based on post-random assignment characteristics could introduce bias into the study results; therefore, the study is not eligible for a high causal evidence rating. In addition, the authors did not control for race or a pre-intervention measure of academic achievement, both of which are highly correlated with the academic outcomes of interest in this study. Because differences in these characteristics could also affect academic performance, the values affirmation exercise might not solely explain the observed differences in outcomes. Therefore, the study is not eligible for a moderate causal evidence rating.

Causal Evidence Rating

The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is low because it was a randomized controlled trial with high attrition that did not control for background conditions likely to have affected the outcomes of interest. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects are attributable to values affirmation; other factors are likely to have contributed.

Reviewed by CLEAR

January 2016