Girls Less Confident Than Boys In Science Classes, Researcher Finds

November 02, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Girls remain a step behind boys in their confidence and participation levels in science classrooms, despite a hands-on teaching approach now popular in many science classrooms, according to University of Illinois research.

"Current reform efforts say that if we change the way we teach science, we will help girls," said Jasna Jovanovic, a professor of human development and family studies at the U. of I. "My data suggest that this may not be the case entirely, because we continue to have girls who are less interested in science, and girls who are less confident about their abilities in science."

Jovanovic, however, said that neither the hands-on approach nor the teachers are to blame for the differences between middle-school-aged girls and boys, who still tend to dominate.

"It may be that not enough time has passed for these reform efforts to make a difference. Boys do have more science experiences to bring into the classroom, such as taking flashlights apart, playing computer games and going to science museums. Boys have done that more. It may take years before girls can catch up," she said. "Until they do, they may continue to feel less confident."

Findings of her work -- funded by the National Science Foundation -- were published in October's American Educational Research Journal, September's Journal of Educational Psychology and in the mid-year issue of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

In the Educational Psychology article (the graduate thesis of Ellen Rydell Altermatt, a doctoral student in psychology), the researchers found that boys were more likely to volunteer to answer questions, and that teachers were not deliberately calling upon boys more often. "Far fewer girls were willing to raise their hands to answer questions," Jovanovic said.

"These classes were almost always dominated by boys volunteering, but girls were just as likely as boys to be called on when their hands were raised," she said. "This is further evidence that teachers are not always showing a bias toward boys."

Researchers observed and surveyed 165 students (fifth- through eighth-graders) in six innovative science classrooms. "Granted, this study looks at a special set of teachers, but one would have expected that in classrooms where teachers are more sensitive that girls would be more willing to participate. That element is still not there. There is still something that is holding girls back."

In fact, the data reported in the American Educational Research Journal suggest that girls reported a decrease in their own perceptions of their scientific abilities at the end of the school year, indicating that boys and girls experienced the classrooms differently.

The problem, Jovanovic said, may be "something systemic that has been going on for years." An answer may be found outside the classroom, she said, especially in girls' access to science-related activities outside of school that may stimulate scientific curiosity.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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