In STEM Courses, a Gender Gap in Online Class Discussions

Women and men behave differently in online class discussions, at least in science, engineering, and computer-science courses, according to a new study conducted by Piazza Technologies, a company that makes a digital class-participation tool.

The company found that women use its program, called Piazza, to ask more questions than do their male peers, but that they answer fewer questions. When women do answer, they are more likely to answer anonymously.

The findings come in the midst of an online debate about male privilege in the sciences. Part of Piazza’s mission is to level the playing field for men and women in academic environments.

Piazza is an online discussion platform that professors at more than 1,000 colleges use to encourage students to ask questions of and answer questions for their classmates. Participation is usually optional, although some professors track students’ use for grading purposes. According to Jessica Gilmartin, Piazza’s chief business officer, most students enrolled in classes that use the tool do participate. Students can post anonymously to their peers, but professors are able to see all students’ names if they choose. Students know when that setting is selected.

The study tracked 420,389 undergraduates and graduate students enrolled in STEM classes in the United States and Canada during four nonconsecutive semesters from the spring of 2012 to the fall of 2014. (If a student took multiple classes during that period, he or she counted as multiple enrollments.)

The study found that, on average, women in computer-science classes asked 2.20 questions and men asked 1.75. In contrast, women answered 0.70 questions and men answered 1.20 questions. For other STEM classes, a similar pattern emerged: Women asked 1.10 questions and men asked 0.90, whereas women answered 0.49 questions and men answered 0.61.

Women answer questions anonymously 35 percent of the time in computer-science courses and 39 percent of the time in other STEM courses, compared with 22 percent and 28 percent, respectively, for their male counterparts.

Men made up nearly 70 percent and women slightly more than 30 percent of the subset of computer-science and STEM enrollments in the study. But even classrooms with a more-balanced gender ratio exhibited the same pattern, Ms. Gilmartin said.

Company officials argued that the differences in behavior by gender represent a “gap in confidence” between women and men enrolled in the courses. It’s a phenomenon that has long interested the company’s founder, Pooja Sankar, who says she felt isolated as one of only a few women studying computer science at a university in India and was too shy to collaborate with male classmates.

Based on reports from hundreds of students and professors who use Piazza, “we know that students answer questions more when they feel more confident,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “We know that they use the anonymity setting when they feel less confident.”

She cited articles such as “The Confidence Gap,” published in May in The Atlantic, as evidence that there’s growing concern about the phenomenon.

“Female students are very quiet and reserved in class, and very self-conscious speaking up in class, but very active on Piazza,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “For us it was not too much of a leap—seeing this tremendous difference among women and men.”

The company has experimented with a number of efforts to close the gap, including holding a six-week online mentoring program, Women in Technology Sharing Online, via the Piazza platform for 15,000 female students in STEM fields.

The company identified Harvey Mudd College as an institution whose computer-science statistics show smaller disparities between male and female behavior.

The California college has revamped its curriculum and changed its culture to make computer-science courses more attractive and welcoming to women, who now make up 40 percent of students in the department.

According to Maria Klawe, the college’s president, introductory computer-science courses now emphasize creative problem-solving and offer coding assignments that draw on real-world scenarios. To avoid intimidating men and women new to the subject, people who have prior experience are enrolled in separate introductory sections, and professors make a point of reminding enthusiastic students to let their peers have a chance to speak in class.

“We now have students choosing to major in computer science in Harvey Mudd because this course has gotten such rave reviews,” Ms. Klawe said. “When you make something better for one group of students, you’re actually making it better for all students. We’re not making it easy, we’re just making it fun.”

The Piazza study also looked at data for other subjects. The answer-gap was smaller for students who use Piazza in humanities classes, and reversed for students who use it in social-science and business courses.

Of the 16,066 humanities enrollments in the study, women (51 percent of the total subset) answered 0.42 questions, compared with men’s 0.45. Of the 16,612 social-science enrollments, women (46 percent) answered 0.46 questions, compared with men’s 0.43. Of the 6,064 business enrollments, women (42 percent) answered  0.35 questions, compared with men’s 0.32.

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