Grading exams is an emotional experience. To me, a test is as much an assessment of me and my work with the students as it is of the students’ understanding—probably more about me than about them, I have come to think. I experience joy, pleasure, and pride when I see students who have been struggling, but do well on the exam. I am sad and disappointed when it’s not going so well. And then there is guilt and self-examination when I see most students doing poorly on a particular problem or concept; where did my explanation and support around this issue fail?
So, when I noticed earlier this year that certain groups of students were not doing as well as others on their exams, I was mortified. This observation motivated me to look more closely at the results of the exams, at who was doing well on them and who wasn’t. Now that the semester is over and I have some time, I am following that observation up by taking a close look at who got what final grade in my Elementary Algebra course. I am finding that looking closely at who does well in my course and who does not is an important exercise in self-reflection and a way to understand how I teach, who I am teaching, and where I need to focus my efforts to improve.
One caveat before I continue: I did not ask my students to identify their gender. The following data was generated by my observations of students’ gender markers and is arbitrarily (and in the usual way) restricted to two genders only—female and male. I am fully aware that some of the students in this class would probably self-identify as something other than “man” or “woman.” In truth, I did not think of doing this analysis in this way until after the semester was over, so the opportunity to ask them their gender is gone. I will do it differently in the future.
23 women and 21 men finished the course. 5 people withdrew (3 men, 2 women); I’m not counting them in the base for statistics. Student who drop the course by the deadline, with no mark on their transcript, are not counted here at all.
10 As: 7 women; 3 men;
5 Bs: 2 women; 3 men;
15 Cs: 10 women; 5 men;
4 Ds: 1 woman; 3 men;
10 Fs: 3 women; 7 men.
An overall 32% D/F rate is not great, but it’s not terrible. It’s actually pretty close to the average D/F rate for community college classes in California. It’s also pretty normal for women to do better in developmental courses. (Some of you might say “remedial” courses but I prefer the term “developmental” because of its implication that the student is developing as a whole student and person; to me, “remedial” pathologizes the students and implies they are deficient and need to be fixed—which I do not believe is true.)
The difference between the percentage of women who pass my class (82.6%) and the men who pass (52.4%) is perhaps more dramatic than usual. Among the many possible reasons for this disparity, I would focus the explanation on the fact that I strongly reward my students for consistent work; I emphasize the need to make doing homework (i.e., doing math) a routine part of one’s life. I believe that women are more likely to respond to that because of the greater likelihood that they’ve been socialized to do daily, “small” tasks in the home. In other words, “home” is a place women are more likely to associate with “work” than men; thus, “homework” is more likely to be done by women than by men. My supposition is backed up by the fact that women’s overall homework score was about 78%, compared to the men’s 62%. Since I reward students for doing homework, women are more likely to succeed in my class.
I strongly believe that I am putting the emphasis on the correct thing in my course. (For another point of view, see dy/dan: why I don’t assign homework.) Moreover, I require the students to individually choose the percentage weight of homework in their overall grade (within a specified range); this choice can negate some of the reward disparity, but does not replace the benefits lost by not doing the homework every day. The fact remains that I failed to motivate enough men to do enough homework to pass the class, while I succeeded with most of the women. To me this points to something on which I need to work. Clearly, I must make a more concerted effort to reach out to the men in my course.
All the studies I’ve ever seen of perceptions about mathematical ability in men and women say that most people think men are better than women at math. Anecdotally, I have seen this perception in the words of women who doubt themselves, even when they are very good students, and men who are over-confident. Thus, in an effort to alleviate some of this effect in my classroom by creating an environment that is friendly to and comfortable for women, I may be overcompensating for women, at the expense of the men. Or not. Several arguments come to my mind, including that by making my classroom more female-friendly I am forcing men into a more female space, which might be a good thing considering the still male-dominated world in which we live. However, no matter how “in touch” I am with my feminine nature, I doubt that I’m actually creating a truly feminine space in my classroom. Perhaps it is just a little more balanced than your typical math classroom.
My intuition tells me that to help the men, I need to connect with them one-on-one. Men are typically socialized not to ask for help, which works against us doing well in school. We’re too strong and smart and good to need help from someone else. This phenomenon is stronger when asking for help means making it obvious to everyone else in the class that we need help. Makes us look bad. So, if I really want men to succeed in my class, I can start by trying to reach them individually, thereby reducing the embarrassment factor.
Is that really the answer? I don’t know, but it’s worth finding out. And I would never know to try if I didn’t assess my results for the semester.