The Experiences of Female Students in an Introductory Physics Course

December 29, 2017

By Emily Marshman, Zeynep Y. Kalender, Timothy Nokes-Malach, Christian Schunn, and Chandralekha Singh

Imagine you are sitting in a classroom full of 200 students in an introductory physics course at a large university. Looking around the room, you don’t think you can relate to your classmates, and you are not sure if you will be able to succeed in the course. During discussions with your classmates, sometimes it feels as though they aren’t paying attention to your ideas, and you begin to further doubt your ability to succeed. As the course progresses, it is difficult for you to identify how the subject matter is relevant to your life and future career. It seems like in this particular course, either you "get" the topics or you don’t—and you definitely don’t "get it". After a few weeks, you think that perhaps you just don’t belong, decide to keep quiet in class discussions, and seriously consider dropping the course.

This experience appears to be quite common for female students in STEM courses—especially introductory physics courses. The experience illustrates that students’ motivation can play a large part in the extent to which they engage in physics courses. While there have been some efforts to improve the experiences of female students and make physics courses more inclusive, the reasons for the frequently documented low enrollment percentages and the under-performance of women in physics are still not fully understood. Researchers are now examining the relationship between students’ motivation and learning and, in particular, the motivation of female students.  

I’m sure I can’t

Motivation has several facets, and the existence and size of gender differences vary by the facet. One primary facet of motivation involves the belief in one’s capability to be successful in a particular task, subject area, or course—also known as "self-efficacy"1. This perceived ability affects student performance above and beyond their actual knowledge and ability2,3. For example, if a female student is confident in her math problem solving ability this belief can be more predictive of her problem solving performance than her actual math understanding2,3. Unfortunately, female students demonstrate lower self-efficacy relative to male students beginning in middle school4

In our study, we investigated students’ self-efficacy throughout two introductory college-level physics courses that spanned two semesters, one algebra-based and one-calculus based.  We gave students surveys at three time points: the beginning of the first semester course, at the beginning of the second semester course, and at the end of the second semester course. They were asked to respond to questions on a scale of 14. 

Students were asked to answer questions such as “If I study, I will do well on a physics test … ” on a scale of 14 with 1 being “NO!” and 4 being “YES!” We then compared female and male students’ responses to the survey questions. We found that at the beginning of both physics courses, females were more likely to disagree with statements such as the one above than males—females were sure they could not do well in the course. This gender difference in self-efficacy remained throughout the two-semester course sequence. 

This stuff is (becoming) boring

Another aspect of motivation involves intrinsic interest in a particular subject. Intrinsic interest can entail enjoyment in doing a task or learning about a particular subject and is critical to students’ decisions to engage in learning the subject and pursue it further5. In fact, one of the reasons women choose not to pursue STEM degrees is because their career interests often focus on making a difference in people’s lives, and they do not view STEM fields as those in which they could help others6.

To examine students’ intrinsic interest in physics, we examined students’ responses to survey questions such as: “I want to know everything I can about physics …” on a scale of 14 with 1 being “NO!” and 4 being “YES!”. We found that in both physics courses, female students’ fascination with physics was much lower than males at the beginning of the first semester courses. Females’ interest in physics decreased even more relative to males’ throughout the two-semester course sequence.

Some people (like me) can’t learn this stuff

Intelligence mindset is also related to motivation. Intelligence mindset refers to whether intelligence is viewed as a fixed or innate trait that one is born with (e.g., IQ) or whether it is viewed as something that is malleable and can be improved through hard work and effective study strategies7. Studies show that girls who view math ability as a fixed trait have decreased motivation and interest in pursuing math careers7.

We investigated male and female students’ intelligence mindset by asking students to agree or disagree with survey questions such as "Only very few specially qualified people are capable of really understanding physics." We found that at the beginning of the first semester calculus-based courses, females were more likely than males to agree with statements such as the one above. That is, females were more likely than males to think that physics intelligence is a fixed ability that cannot be changed. We also found that females’ intelligence mindset in physics tended to become even more "fixed" relative to males’ over the two semesters. 

A toxic, vicious cycle

The scenario described at the beginning of this post illustrates an experiential account consistent with our findings. Many students, especially females, may enter physics courses with low confidence in their ability to succeed and have low interest in the subject. Some female students may even think physics is a subject that a person will just "get" (or not "get"). Female students may believe that they will never "get" physics (low self-efficacy) because they aren’t "smart enough" (fixed intelligence mindset), and they may find physics less and less interesting throughout the course (decreased interest in physics). This combination of motivational factors is a toxic, vicious cycle. Female students who are not interested in physics to begin with may not engage deeply with course content and instruction. Their low confidence in their abilities to succeed can actually result in low performance in the course, and this further decreases their interest in physics and their self-efficacy. On top of that, their belief that physics intelligence is an innate personal quality may deter them from using effective study strategies and learning from their mistakes, resulting in decreased performance and diminished self-efficacy and interest. 

Looking for hope

While the experience of female students in physics courses may seem grim, there is hope to improve the situation. Instructors, researchers, and curriculum developers can use our findings to create new approaches that specifically target these motivational factors. For example, students’ self-efficacy increases when they engage in instructional activities such as collaborative learning (in which students work in teams to solve problems) and inquiry-based labs (in which students develop their own research questions, hypotheses, and experiments)8. Modifying how STEM careers are promoted may enhance intrinsic interest; female students’ interest in STEM fields increases when STEM careers are presented to females as more "people oriented" and communal6. In regards to intelligence mindset, interventions that involve helping students learn about effective study skills and scientific research showing that the brain grows and one "gets smarter" when working on challenging tasks both improve math grades9. Praising students for their effort in studying (as opposed to their intelligence) also helps students view intelligence as malleable10. Recognizing the importance of students’ motivational characteristics and developing ways to address and improve their motivation may ultimately make physics and other STEM fields more attractive to women and increase diversity in these fields.


1Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory
2Self-efficacy beliefs and general mental ability in mathematical problem-solving
3The role of self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs in mathematical problem-solving: A path analysis
4Gender differences in mathematics self-efficacy beliefs
5The development of achievement task values: a theoretical analysis
6Malleability in communal goals and beliefs influences attraction to STEM careers: Evidence for a goal congruity perspective
7C. Dweck (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, New York: Ballentine.
8Engaging Students: An Examination of the Effects of Teaching Strategies on Self-Efficacy and Course Climate in a Nonmajors Physics Course
9Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention
10Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance

Emily Marshman is the associate director of the Discipline Based Science Education Research Center and a lecturer in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Pittsburgh. She earned her PhD in physics from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research was in physics education with a focus on improving teaching and learning in upper division physics courses and training physics teaching assistants. Along with her collaborators, she also has researched aspects of student motivation in physics courses, which was the focus on this CJP paper.

Filed Under: Canadian Journal of Physics

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