What can the 'confidence gap' tell us about student success?

Once the gap starts, it never closes

New research finds the level of engagement for female students in STEM classes varies widely by subject, with evidence of a "confidence gap" in certain fields that persists even to advanced levels, eCampus News reports.

The research comes from Piazza, a firm which produces software to help STEM instructors engage with students. Piazza mined data on 976,000 graduate and undergraduate STEM students who asked and answered questions using the platform. The research tracked students over nearly four terms.

For equity in STEM academia, look beyond the 'guru mentor model'

To measure student engagement, Piazza looked at two variables: the number of questions a student attempted, and how many they chose to answer anonymously. Asking a lower percentage of questions anonymously was used as a proxy for confidence, while the total number questions attempted was used to measure engagement.

Men tend to participate more in classes, but that trend flipped in the anonymous online forum, says Jessica Gilmartin, head of business and lead researcher at Piazza. When online and anonymous, women tended to participate more than men.

Gilmartin attributes the trend to a "confidence gap," and says it varies widely by subject. For instance, in Astronomy, women answered 39% more questions than men did and answered them anonymously less often than men. However, in Robotics, women answered 41% fewer questions and did so anonymously at a rate 10 percentage points higher than men.

Women displayed the most confidence in astronomy, finance, and economics, but lagged men significantly in STEM fields, including computer science, bioengineering, and robotics.

Research brief: Developing and maintaining an interest in STEM disciplines with students before and during their college careers

And the gaps do not go away—but actually get worse. Gilmartin says that, when a course has a gap in the lower levels, the gap only gets wider at the more advanced levels.

"We need to look at data like this because it's important to understand that the culture of a class or field is just as important as what's being taught," says Gilmartin.  She adds that the research suggests online engagement may be a critical tool for connecting with students who are not comfortable participating in class (Stansbury, eCampus News, 2/18).

The takeaway: Women in STEM classes are less confident than their male peers, and this 'confidence gap' only grows wider as students advance, according to one expert in student learning.


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