Research

Exams and Test Anxiety Disadvantage Women in Introductory Bio Courses

A new study lead by researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education and the University of Minnesota has found that female student tend to do more poorly on high-stakes exams but better on other types of assessment, such as written assignments or lab work.

"The study also shows that the anxiety of taking an exam has a more significant impact on women's grades than it does for men," according to a report about the research in Futurity.

The study was based on data, such as exam scores, lab activities, discussion sections, written assignments and low-stakes quizzes, collected from 1,562 students in 10 large introductory biology courses last fall.

"It was striking," said Shima Salehi, a doctoral student at Stanford Graduate School of Education and one of two lead authors on the study, in a prepared statement. "We found that these types of exams disadvantage women because of the stronger effect that test anxiety has on women's performance."

The researchers found that the female students underperformed relative to their male counterparts on course exams, even as they outperformed their male peers on the other kinds of assessments.

"Other studies have shown that students' performance on high-stakes exams is not a good predictor for whether they're acquiring the skills that STEM professionals need," Salehi said in a prepared statement. "And if psychological barriers prevent women from performing optimally on exams, it may be time to reconsider exams as a primary method for evaluating students' knowledge."

To better understand what might be behind the gap in exam scores, the researchers asked questions designed to gather information about participants' test anxiety and interest in the course material. They were asked to rate sentences on a scale of 1 to 7 based on how well they applied to them. Examples of these questions included: "I am so nervous during a test that I cannot remember facts that I have learned," and, "I think that what I am learning in this course is useful for me to know."

For the male students, neither test anxiety nor interest in the material shared a correlation with test scores. For female students, on the other hand, test scores correlated with both, with higher interest in course material correlating to higher scores and higher test anxiety correlating to lower scores.

To read the full study, visit journals.plos.org.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at jbolkan@gmail.com.

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