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STEM Higher Education Research

  • 10 November 2019

WITS welcomes Irish research in STEM higher education. Two academic papers recently published explore different aspects of STEM in higher education.

The paper from a team at the University of Limerick explores female undergraduate students’ perceptions of STEM while the paper from academics at University College Dublin examines gender effects in different types of undergraduate science assessment. Both add to our understanding of the experience of young women and girls in their undergraduate studies.

STEM and gender at university: focusing on Irish undergraduate female students’ perceptions

The study aimed to explore whether or not girls associate with STEM culture by exploring the perceptions of female undergraduate STEM students.

This is a lovely study that explores the perceptions of girls studying STEM courses at third level and identifies this as an under researched area. It’s good to see these young women who have selected STEM careers being considered and the question asked do they have a strong STEM identity and exploring their third level experiences to answer it.

The study finds that STEM undergraduates are well aware of the fewer women in STEM professions and leadership. They think that social bias, balancing work and family life and the lack of roles models are the causes of this difference. Sadly the research shows that despite their engagement with STEM girls who study STEM courses have stereotypical views of scientists and feel they will have fewer opportunities in STEM. Their images of STEM professionals do not align with their own science identities and lack belief in their own competencies. The consequences of this are seen in the leaky pipeline!

The authors conclude that there is a need to change the culture experienced by girls as they study STEM at third level, highlights the need for peer support and suggests that young women feeling they belong in STEM is essential to their continued participation. WITS is working to do this with its free student membership and support of Women in STEM societies at the colleges. Thank you for an important and useful study.

Examining gender effects in different types of undergraduate science assessment

Assessment is a key element of all higher education and should be accurate and without bias. Academics at UCD explored the performance of first year undergraduate students to see the impact of the assessment on young women and men.

The assessment structure and student performance for two years of three life science modules were analysed. The assessment was a combination of continuous assessment and multiple choice questions (MCQ) exam. Some of the MCQ exams were scored with and others without negative marking.

The results were most interesting. The team found no gender differences in students’ performance in continuous assessment or MCQ exams without negative marking – good news. However there was a significant difference in the performance of women and men in the MCQ exams with negative marking. They hypothesised that this was linked to a gender difference in willingness to guess and possibly lose marks.

There are a number of findings from the study. First of all it supports the argument (and UCD policy) that diverse assessment structures are fairer to all students. Secondly it cautions that negative marking of MCQ exam may be detrimental to student performance. The regular review of assessment strategy for gender bias is recommended. Lastly negative marking of MCQ exams ceased in the School of Biology and Environmental Science in UCD from September 2017 (Kacprzyk et al, 2019, p. 8).

The authors argue that local case studies such as this can have an impact on students’ experience. Gender bias free assessment can support student performance and access to academic opportunities.

Congratulations to the authors on this important study. Other colleges please copy!

Joanna Kacpzyk, Martin Parsons, Patricia B. Maguire & Gavin S. Stewart (2019): examining gender effects in different types of undergraduate science assessment, Irish Educational Studies, DOI:10.1080/03323315.2019.1645721.