Closing The Gap

Study: Men overestimate their intelligence in science class. Women sell themselves short

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A dynamic casually observed in many science classrooms has now been confirmed by research: Men overestimate their intelligence in STEM courses, while women underestimate their abilities.

That's according to a study published this month in Advances in Physiology Education. This dynamic had already been proven to exist in math, physics and chemistry courses, and the study affirmed its presence in biology classes as well.

"A review of nearly 20 published papers on self-estimated intelligence concluded that men rate themselves higher than women on self-estimated intelligence," researchers from Arizona State University write in the report.

Even though the men and women in the class had the same average GPA, 3.3, and had not taken any exams for the course before they were surveyed, when the researchers looked at how individuals perceived themselves compared to the class as a whole, they found that the men tended to have higher "academic self-concepts," or perceptions of their own ability.

"The average male student thinks he is smarter than 66 percent of the class, while the average female student thinks she is smarter than 54 percent of the class," assistant professor Sara E. Brownell told NBC News.

When Brownell and her colleagues looked at out how students thought they compared to a single workmate, they found that the male students had a 61 percent chance of perceiving themselves as smarter, while females only had a 33 percent chance of saying they were smarter.

They found a similar discrepancy between non-native and native English speakers. The average non-native speaker believed he or she was smarter than 46 percent of the class, while the average native speaker claimed to be smarter than 61 percent.

The research can't definitively explain these differences. But between genders, because the men and women used the same exact indicators to construct their self-concepts — interactions in class — they posit that "women may be judging their own behavior or ability more harshly than do men."

If a student answered a difficult question correctly in front of the class, everyone was influenced by it, but the men and women were influenced to different extents.

"We found that students with higher academic self-concept are more likely to report participating more in small-group discussions," the researchers report. "This could have implications for student learning, because studies have shown that greater participation can lead to greater learning, since students are constructing their own knowledge, rather than listening passively."

Self-doubt can disrupt students' confidence in their ability to perform a task, which in turn interferes with the learning process. It's easy to imagine how these differences in the classroom could propagate gender-related issues in the workplace, especially since women are already underrepresented in STEM.

"Females are not participating as much in science class," says Brownell. "They are not raising their hands and answering questions,"

She says that, in light of these findings, it's vital that teachers make an effort to hear from everyone: "Even the quietest student can have the best ideas."

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