A 'Gender Effect' in College Learning?

By Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 2001 | Go to article overview
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A 'Gender Effect' in College Learning?

Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

Women learn less than men in college - about one-third less, according to new research peering into the mysterious realm of what students actually learn on campus.

Discovering just how much undergraduates learn in English, math, science, and social studies was the aim of a study of 19,000 students at 56 four-year colleges and universities in 13 states.

But when researchers compared students' scores on a standardized test, one finding leaped out: gender was a huge factor in how much those scores improved over time. Women's scores improved only two- thirds as much as men's over the course of four years. Women lagged most in math and science, but also in other areas.

"To me, the finding is disconcerting," says Ernest Pascarella, a University of Iowa professor of education and co-author of the study.

"We're the first to have found this gender effect, at least as far as I know," he says. "I'm still a tad skeptical until someone else has similar results or we do another study and find the same thing."

Others are skeptical, too. The standardized test could be gender- biased, they suggest, or the different scores could be explained at least in part by the fact that women take fewer science and math courses than men.

"These results are from one test," says Valdrie Walker, an associate professor of education at Sweet Briar College, an all- women's school in Virginia. "What are the qualitative variables?"

Study findings were reported in the peer-reviewed Journal of Higher Education. And researchers say the test they used - the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination - has been vetted by scores of scientists over a number of years. But they do offer caveats.

The student sample was not random - even though the race and gender breakdown had "reasonable comparability" with the national profile of traditional-age college students.

They also acknowledge that the data did not indicate students' courses and majors. Still, Dr. Pascarella and colleagues stand by their analysis, even as they call for further research to verify or dispute their findings.

"The study is not saying that men are somehow smarter than women," Pascarella says. "We don't know what these results mean. But we do know that lots of times, our [American higher education] pedagogy is male oriented, and that may be part of what's happening here."

This latest study is only a small part of a shift in education research toward the critical question: How do you measure what students actually learn in their undergraduate years?

If successful, such efforts could yield college rankings based on how well schools teach their undergraduates - not just the number of books in the library or the size of an endowment.

Measures of learning

Much of the unhappiness over rankings today is because higher education is "a black box" - and rankings like those by US News & World Report only hint at what's inside, researchers say.

"People assume that if a young person goes to Harvard, Wellesley, or Swarthmore they will be better off than at a state public university," says Roger Benjamin, president of the Rand Council for Aid to Education in New York. "What the institution adds to the individual student is never really answered."

But can research really do that? At least a half-dozen well- funded organizations believe they can, and are working on tools to assess reading, writing, and critical thinking undergraduates in an objective and quantifiable fashion.

At the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., researchers have made key "breakthroughs" in developing machine- scorable writing tests at the higher-education level, observers say.

One of the most advanced efforts is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) funded by the Pew Charitable trust, which released its second set of results last week on student performances at 470 four-year colleges and universities.

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