Dr Kate Wilson, SFHEA, is a senior lecturer and Scientia Education Fellow at UNSW Canberra (@ADFA) in the School of Engineering and IT, and the Learning and Teaching Group (LTG).
Kate teaches Engineering Mechanics, The Graduate Teaching Training Program (Beginning To Teach) and Foundations of University Learning and Teaching. Kate has a PhD in physics from Monash University and a Grad.Dip.Ed. (Secondary Teaching) from the University of Canberra. She has been first year coordinator in physics at the ANU and Director of the Australian Science Olympiads Physics Program. She is a past member of the Sydney University Physics Education Research Group and has held an Innovative Teaching and Educational Technology Fellowship at UNSW (Kensington).
Kate does research on student learning in physics, on first year transition, and on gender and assessment in science. She has published many journal and conference papers, and been an invited keynote speaker at the Australian Institute of Physics conference, and symposia at ANU and Swinburne. Kate is an author of five textbooks for high school and university physics. The high school texts are used across Australia and support the new Australian Curriculum. The first year university text, in its second edition, is used internationally. These books are informed by current education research, including Kate’s own research into learning in physics.
Kate also runs a popular primary school science enrichment program, which uses hands-on activities including building marshmallow canons and dissecting rats to teach fundamental ideas in science.
Read Kate's recent article on The Conversation answering 'Curious Kids: If an insect is flying in a car while it is moving does the insect have to move at the same speed?' here.
View a 2 minute video summary of Kate's Scientia Education Lecture 'Why do boys do better than girls on (most) physics tests?' below:
Understanding and Addressing Gender Differences on STEM Exams
In Collaboration with:
- Dr Praveen Pathak and Dr Prashant Joshi, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai,
- Dr Matthew Verdon and Dr Alix Verdon, Australian Science Olympiads Program
- Dr David Low and Umairia Malik (PhD candidate), PEMS, UNSW Canberra
- A/Prof Elizabeth Angstmann, Physics, UNSW Sydney
Introduction: Women are under-represented in STEM degrees and careers worldwide. There are many reasons for this, including less exposure to science and mathematics at a young age, differences in the way teachers interact with girls and boys, lower self-efficacy and stereotype threat, as well as expectations of peers and family. There are also cultural issues within science that can make it less welcoming for women than for men. Performance gaps are also an important contributing factor, as even if a girl wants to pursue STEM she will not be able to if she cannot meet performance requirements.
While girls perform better than boys in both STEM and non-STEM subjects at school, girls under-perform relative to boys on competitive examinations including the Australian Science Olympiad Examinations, the National Standard Examinations and university entrance examinations in India. In many countries, including the two most populous nations on Earth – India and China – it is not school grades that determine university access. It is these external competitive examinations.
This under-performance on competitive examinations contributes in two ways to maintaining the low participation rate of women in STEM. First, for girls taking the examinations, they are less likely to be able to access a STEM degree and hence career if they score poorly compared to their male counterparts. This is a direct effect. Indirectly, poor performance of girls on these types of examinations affects the self-esteem and self-efficacy not only of the girls themselves, but of younger peers who may note the lack of success of girls in accessing degrees and competitive programs.
Aims: We have been exploring the gender differences in performance on competitive examinations in Australia and India, as well as our own UNSW examinations and tests.
We have three aims:
- Understand the reasons why girls under-perform on STEM exams, particularly competitive examinations.
- Find ways to write exams that are fit for purpose (select students appropriately and are logistically “doable”) with less gender bias.
- Design teaching interventions to better help girls with problematic content and improve their exam technique.
Outcomes: To date we have analysed student response data from 9 years of Australian Science Olympiad Physics Examinations (approx. 9000 students) and identified characteristics of questions that give large gender gaps.
We have field tested revised versions of questions with UNSW students to create questions with reduced bias, that still test the same content.
We have also examined existing UNSW physics tests for gender bias, exploring tests on a question by question basis.
In parallel with this, we have developed a teaching intervention that is simple, cheap and quick that assists girls with one particularly problematic concept area (projectile motion).
Currently we are working with large data sets (more than 300,000 students) from the Indian National Standards Examinations. These examinations are the same format as the Indian university entrance examinations, and show the same large gender gaps in achievement. For example, in the Physics exam, the ratio of male median mark to female median mark is 2.2. Even in the Biology exam, where the marks are much more similar, the ratio is 1.4. The variability of boys’ marks is also greater, meaning that there are more boys at the top end of the mark distribution.
The reasons for girls’ underperformance are a combination of less content knowledge/lower ability and poor test-taking strategy – most likely due to less preparation including less access to coaching - and lower confidence. At the high achieving end, the main reason for the gender gap is lower confidence. The format of the examinations, MCQ with negative marking, is a significant factor. The result is that very few girls proceed beyond this examination. Unfortunately, this is also the case for the university entrance examinations taken by millions of students annually, for which these exams provide a model.
Next steps: In collaboration with the Indian Science Olympiads Program we hope to develop less biased tests for that program. By publishing our findings we hope to raise awareness of the role that competitive entrance examinations, particularly MCQ exams with negative marking, play in maintaining the gender gap in participation in STEM degrees and careers.
At UNSW, we plan to continue developing teaching interventions in physics that reduce the performance gap, and devise better tests. We will continue to promote these practices to secondary and tertiary educators via workshops and publications.
We are grateful for the support of a UNSW Canberra Rector Funded Visiting Fellowship which has enabled the collaboration with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE). I am also grateful for the hospitality of the HBCSE in hosting me for a return visit to maintain the collaboration.
What can we do about girls and women being under-represented in STEM subjects at all levels from high school to postgraduate studies?
The repercussions for society are both social and economic; girls are not accessing career options that may empower them and industry is not accessing a large talent pool. Factors such as socio-cultural effects, teaching and assessment practices have been identified as important. For us, as teachers, it is difficult to address the first of these factors. But we can change the way we teach and assess to make the system more equitable.
In this talk, Dr Wilson shared her findings from analysing and identifying patterns in test data from both secondary and tertiary students in India and Australia. She will reveal characteristics of test questions which lead to consistent large gender gaps and problematic marking procedures, and introduce teaching strategies designed to minimise these gaps.