Boys tend to perform better on high-stakes science tests, but it is not because they are better students, a study has found.
Researchers from University of Minnesota in the US found that performance gaps between male and female students increased or decreased based on whether instructors emphasised or de-emphasised the value of exams.
Based on a year-long study of students in nine introductory biology courses, they found that female students did not underperform in courses where exams count for less than half of the total course grade.
In a separate study, instructors changed the curriculum in three different courses to place higher or lesser value on high-stakes exams (eg midterms and finals) and observed gender-biased patterns in performance.
"When the value of exams is changed, performance gaps increase or decrease accordingly," said Sehoya Cotner, associate professor at the University of Minnesota.
The findings build on recent research which showed that on average, womens exam performance is adversely affected by test anxiety.
By moving to a "mixed model" of student assessment - including lower-stakes exams, as well as quizzes and other assignments - instructors can decrease well established performance gaps between male and female students in science courses.
"This is not simply due to a watering down of poor performance through the use of easy points," said Cotner.
"Rather, on the exams themselves, women perform on par with men when the stakes are not so high," she said.
The researchers point to these varied assessments as a potential reason why the active-learning approach, which shifts the focus away from lectures and lecture halls to more collaborative spaces and group-based work, appears to decrease the performance gap between students.
"As people transition to active learning, they tend to incorporate a diversity of low-stakes, formative assessments into their courses," Cotner said.
"We think that it is this use of mixed assessment that advantages students who are otherwise underserved in the large introductory science courses," he said.
Researchers also see their findings as a potential to reframe gaps in student performance.
"Many barriers students face can be mitigated by instructional choices," said Cotner.
"We conclude by challenging the student deficit model, and suggest a course deficit model as explanatory of these performance gaps, whereby the microclimate of the classroom can either raise or lower barriers to success for underrepresented groups in STEM," she said....