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Class Size Impacts Women in STEM

A new study found smaller class sizes can increase the participation of women in STEM fields.

female student sitting alone in large lecture hall

When it comes to instruction in the classroom, the number of students taking a course can have an impact on how whether female students decide to pursue STEM careers, according to a new study.  

Using data obtained from multiple institutions for 44 science courses, the researchers calculated female participation based on more than 5,300 interactions between instructors and students over a two-year period. The study found that large classes with more than 120 students can begin to negatively impact student performance.

"We show that class size has the largest impact on female participation, with smaller classes leading to more equitable participation. We also found that women are most likely to participate after small-group discussions when instructors use diverse teaching strategies," said lead author Cissy Ballen, who is currently an assistant professor at Auburn University. "We hope these results encourage instructors to be proactive in their classrooms with respect to these inequities."

The researchers also found that there are ways to make large class sizes function like smaller ones, by breaking up students into groups for evidence-based active learning exercises. This technique is being used as part of the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences.

The study received funding from the National Science Foundation. A full copy of the report can be found in the BioScience journal for a small fee.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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