Gender differences in undergraduate students' performance, perception and participation in physics
Donnelly, Robyn Claire Annabel
Research has been undertaken to obtain a thorough understanding of the existence and degree of gender disparity in students' participation and performance in introductory university physics courses at the University of Edinburgh. The research on this topic has focused on three main subject areas: the proportion of male and female students enrolled in undergraduate physics courses and their reasons for choosing to study this subject, gender differences in student performance and, Finally, how students' attitudes and beliefs towards studying physics change after a period of instruction. Gaining an insight into students' attitudes towards studying and learning physics, as well as their conceptual understanding of the topics being assessed, can draw attention to potential areas of weakness which can be targeted in future teaching. This thesis comprises a comprehensive review of the current situation surrounding male and female participation in the undergraduate physics degree programme at the University of Edinburgh in comparison to other STEM subjects, as well as a description of factors potentially influencing the gender performance in physics. With respect to student performance, conceptual understanding tests have been used as evaluation tools to measure the effectiveness of introducing interactive engagement, such as Peer Instruction, into teaching environments in order to improve student performance, as well as a means by which male and female learning gains could be compared. Results indicate that female students show a lower level of conceptual understanding of Newtonian Mechanics than male students when entering the degree programme, and that this gender difference remains after a period of instruction. Qualitative interviews highlight the preconceptions of first year undergraduate physics students with regards to Newtonian concepts of force and motion and demonstrate the range of misconceptions held by both male and female students. The research presented here compares male and female performance on different forms of assessment; coursework, laboratory assessments, examinations and peer instruction in-lecture questions. Results indicate that while examination scores show no distinct gender trends, female students show consistently higher coursework scores compared to males across physics, chemistry and biology first year courses. Analysis of Peer Instruction questions implemented in the introductory physics lectures suggest that such teaching methodologies have had an overall positive effect on class performance, although there is evidence that differences exist between male and female performance on individual questions. Students' attitudes towards learning physics have been measured at under- graduate level in order to evaluate the level of 'expert-like' thinking of first year undergraduate students. One notable finding of this study has been the lack of decline in the `expert-like' thinking after a semester of teaching in recent years, where previously a decline had been witnessed in this expert-like thinking. This result coincides with a change in the format of lectures to a 'flipped- classroom' approach and may have implications for the introduction of new teaching methods. As well as focusing on the progression of undergraduate students' attitudes, this study has evaluated UK academics' attitudes towards physics. This has enabled a UK level of `expert-like' thinking to be established, with gender differences between male and female academics identified. Students' opinions of the transferable skills gained and their experiences during their degree programme are discussed. Each of the gender topics discussed in this thesis has provided a deeper insight into gender differences in student attainment at undergraduate level which could have implications for the further improvement of future courses.