STEM Classroom Scaffolds (part 3 in a series)

STEM Classroom Scaffolds (part 3 in a series)

Photo: Mark Schar

Third in a four-part series, "Closing the Gender Gap in Your STEM Classroom," that bridges research to practice by providing you with seven key practices to make your STEM courses more inclusive. In Part 1, Scutt explained some foundations of gender analysis, common metrics in research on STEM education, and conditional effects. In Part 2, Scutt recommended four specific skills for instructors to emphasize to students to improve retention of women students in STEM fields.

The original paper upon which the series is based is “Research-Informed Practices for Inclusive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classrooms: Strategies for Educators to Close the Gender Gap,” by Scutt, Gilmartin, Sheppard, and Brunhaver.  It can be downloaded from the American Society for Engineering Education’s 2013 Annual Conference Proceedings at

Three Scaffolds to Implement

These three “Scaffolds to Implement,” which will conclude the seven key practices, were chosen because educators should be aware of the new insights into how seemingly straightforward classroom practices, such as grades or group work, may be having unforeseen effects.

This post will introduce three scaffolds to implement:

  1. The Importance of Active Expert Roles
  2. Clear Feedback in Grading
  3. Re-evaluation of Group Work in the Classroom

The practices in this post deal with not what a course teaches (skills, mindsets) but instead how a course is structured.

Active Expert Roles

An active expert role is one in which the student answers questions, makes comments, teaches others, or expresses their voice through presentations (Hazari et al., 2010). It has been shown that students who teach their classmates more frequently can develop a stronger identity in that subject (Hazari et al., 2010) (see Post 1, Common Metrics Table), as “taking on the role of an expert through teaching others might make students feel like they belong to the expert group” (Hazari et al., 2010). Since this feeling of belonging is what girls often lack in STEM fields, active expert roles may help girls in particular to enhance their sense of belonging to their classmates and to the material they engage with.

The importance of active expert roles lies in their equivalence to mastery experiences, which are one of the four sources of self-efficacy according to Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 1977) (see Post 1, Common Metrics Table). In one study on sources of science self-efficacy in middle school students, of the four possible sources of it, “only mastery experience significantly predicted science self-efficacy,” and “boys reported stronger mastery experiences than did girls” (Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010). Moreover, mastery experiences were a slightly stronger predictor of science self-efficacy for girls than for boys. Providing more opportunities for active expert roles in STEM classes can potentially increase a student’s science self-efficacy (Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010).

A study that surveyed first-year engineering students to discover sources of self-efficacy found that effective experiences share the elements of “hands-on experiences, self-motivated learning, real life application, immediate feedback, …and problem-based projects” (Fantz, Siller, & DeMiranda, 2011). With these in mind, there are two main avenues for building mastery experiences into a curriculum. The first is hands-on activities, which traditionally require more time and resources. The second is to assign projects in such a way that a student gets to take ownership of a topic. This is especially effective if the student gets to choose a topic that interests them. Additionally, problem-based projects facilitate creativity and the satisfaction of finding a solution.

By working to correct the mastery experience gender imbalance, we can potentially help correct the STEM self-efficacy gender imbalance.

Clarity in Grading Policies

Girls and women may underestimate their performance in math classes, and perhaps other STEM classes, in part due to gendered expectations of their competencies. Thus, clear grading policies and constructive feedback would help them to properly gauge their success based on their performance alone.

Based on a comparison of math and verbal self-assessments among students from eighth grade through two years beyond high school, men do not seem to assess their competence more favorably than do women at all tasks, regardless of the gender association of a task. However, “males are more likely than females to believe they are competent in math. This pattern emerges even though math grades and math test scores are very similar for males and females” (Correll, 2001).

Correll also found that females rely more on performance feedback (in this case, math grades) in making self-assessments of their mathematical competency. Correll hypothesizes that this is because “they must contend with lower societal expectations of their mathematical competency” (Correll, 2001). The implication is that when females cannot form a firm sense of their ability, they fill in the gap with societal expectations.

A similar incongruity between girls’ actual performance and perceived performance is found in middle school science classes. Despite the fact that girls earn higher final grades in middle school science classes (after controlling for prior achievement), girls reported equal science self-efficacy to that of boys and lower science self-concept than boys (Britner and Pajares, 2006). In other words, there was a disconnect between girls’ self-assessments, self-efficacy, and actual performance.

Notably, even high-performing girls may be underestimating themselves, so it is important to encourage girls at all levels, not just those below average.

Girls and women need a better picture of where they stand in math and science classes because, otherwise, they will use their biased self-assessment. The implications of these two studies are that you should explain grades and test scores in math and science as objectively as possible to your students so that the void in explanation is not filled by stereotypes and other societal expectations, however subtle they may be.

Now that you are aware of the need, this strategy is completely within your power to implement. Speaking to students individually about their grades can send a clearer message than a written note. While this may not be possible to do with every student if you’re the professor of a large course, you can do it with some. And if you’re a teaching assistant, you can talk to each student in your section about grading.

Re-evaluate Group Work Practices

While group work has often been encouraged as an exercise to build teamwork and communication skills, recent research indicates that there may be subtle, unintended consequences which may be cause to reconsider the way group work is approached in the classroom.

One study on interpersonal communication with a focus on gender and engineers versus non-engineers found that “engineering males were more likely than other groups to draw negative conclusions about speakers who engaged in [a female typical speech style, one of] self-belittlement by admitting to difficulties or mistakes--particularly with technological issues” (Wolfe & Powell, 2009). The engineering men were more likely than others (non-engineering men, engineering women, and non-engineering women) to perceive the men and women who used the female-typical speech style as “incapable, whiny, and insecure” (Wolfe & Powell, 2009). It is likely that this situation of self-belittlement and undue negative assumptions occurs during group work.

Debbie Chachra, in an editorial titled “The Perils of Teamwork”, discusses how requiring first-year students in engineering classes to work in teams may not be having the desired supportive effect (Chachra, 2012). Since first-year students come in at various levels of experience, they divide the group’s tasks based on skill sets and self-efficacy.  Therefore, women and under-represented minorities are often given less technical and more managerial tasks. This can perpetuate a vicious cycle to make women feel that they do not belong (Chachra, 2012).

You can restrict group work in various ways. First, focus on individual work early in the course in order to essentially level the playing field by allowing each student to fill in the gaps in their own skill set (Chachra, 2012). Another strategy is to have group members share their personal learning objectives with their teammates before beginning a project so that the project roles can be divided more fairly (Chachra, 2012). A third option is to clearly define roles which each group must select a teammate to fulfill. This can balance the distribution of types of work among group members.


Coming up:  Part 4 will complete the series by revisiting the actions you can take and providing direction should you seek further information.

Works Cited

Wolfe, J., & Powell, E. (2009). Biases in interpersonal communication - How engineering students perceive gender typical speech acts in teamwork. Journal of Engineering Education, 98, 5-16.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84 (2), 191.

Britner, S. & Pajares, F. (2006). Sources of science self-efficacy beliefs of middle school students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43 (5), 485-499.

Chachra, D. (2012). The perils of teamwork. (American Society for Engineering Education) Retrieved 2012, from Prism: http://www.prismmagazine. org/summer12/reinvention.cfm

Correll, S. J. (2001). Gender and the career choice process: The role of biased self-assessments. American Journal of Sociology, 106 (6), 1722-1723.

Fantz, T. D., Siller, T. J., & DeMiranda, M. A. (2011). Pre-collegiate factors influencing the self-efficacy of engineering students. Journal of Engineering Education, 100 (3), 604-623.

Hazari, Z., Sonnert, G., Sadler, P. M., & Shanahan, M. C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47 (8), 978-1003.


Helena Scutt is a senior majoring in Biomechanical Engineering and coterming in Mechanical Engineering. She spent the summer of 2012 in Dr. Sheri Sheppard’s Designing Education Lab researching gender in engineering education. She is currently working on optogenetics in Dr. Scott Delp’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab. She has been Captain of the Varsity Sailing Team for two years and is on the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider.