Monday, October 31, 2011

Reverse engineering gender equal participation

Sometimes you notice a teaching outcome that you didn't intend but is welcome nevertheless. Then the challenge is to figure out what you (the teacher) might have done to make the outcome happen.

Here's such an outcome: In my two intro to ethics classes, 44% of the students are women. I sat down and wrote down the names of the students who, in the two sections, participate most frequently in class. I wrote down names until I reached 25% of the total enrollment. Then I looked at the gender division: Of the top quartile of students in terms of frequency of participation, 53% were women.

Admittedly, this is extremely unscientific: I compiled the list of frequent participants from memory, and while I'd like to think my memory is reliable here, there might be biases that skew the results. But supposing the list is basically accurate, it seems like a noteworthy result. I'd guess that in past terms, maybe one-quarter or one-third of my frequent participants were women. Here the women frequent participants appear to outnumber the men and are disproportionate to their overall enrollment.

The question is: Did I do it, and if so, how did I do it? I'm a little mystified. I am mindful of some of the gender dynamics of classroom discussion, but I don't perceive that I've done anything dramatically different this term in terms of my teaching style or techniques.

Here are some possible explanations:
  • I've always used a fair amount of small group discussion, but I introduced it earlier this term. Perhaps by talking in smaller groups, the women students have been emboldened to participate in larger class discussion?
  • We began the quarter discussing the ethics of abortion, an issue that I assume women students are likely to have an especially strong interest in. Could the choice of topic encouraged women to participate right from the outset?
  • I made a more concerted effort to learn students' names. Maybe this more personal touch made women more willing to participate?
In any event, even though it can be better to be lucky than good, I'd like to be able to replicate this result. Have I overlooked any possible explanations? Does anyone have specific techniques they use to achieve equal participation by male and female students?

1 comment:

  1. I found your experience that men tended to participate more than women (and the link on gender dynamics that you posted) very interesting, not least because it is the exact opposite of my classroom experience. I'm in my fifth semester teaching as a TF at a Jesuit school, and I have repeatedly found the women are more apt to participate than the men. (As it happens, I'm female but something of a tomboy and I like to think I relate equally well to both genders.) If that was my class, I probably would have interpreted this as a bad outcome, since the male students were not participating as much - but obviously that is based out of my past experience.

    I suspect though can't be sure that the beginning with abortion has a lot to do with it. I find that early class meetings set the tone for the semester as a whole. It might be worth repeating the schedule to see if you get a similar result in the future. Be sure to report back! :-)


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