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I recently talked with my advisor and several other professors from the same field about student–teacher interaction in class. Several of them said they had noticed that men participated in class and interacted with them significantly more than women, and that they thought this is a problem because:

  • Classes work better when students participate and there’s a dialogue

  • If students do not ask questions, they (professors) have no way to know whether the students are actually learning.

  • It is easier to recognize/get to know/appreciate a student, and therefore eventually write him/her a good recommendation letter or invite him/her to work with you if you notice said student in class.

All this got me thinking: is this a real phenomenon and if yes, why is it an issue? I think perhaps, it’s also a matter of perception: at some point in the conversation my advisor said he considered I was very quiet in class too, and I’ve never perceived myself as such.

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One part of the difference is not that women are different in their willingness to ask questions, but anyone visibly different is. I was an undergrad in a class of 44. There were 4 women: two of one visible ethnicity, and two of another. My hair was a different colour and length than the other woman of my ethnicity. This meant everyone knew who we were. If we were late, asked a question that showed we hadn't been listening, or did anything else, everyone knew who did that. In contrast there were 5 or 6 white guys with short dark hair and football player builds who wore leather class jackets and sat at the back. There were 5 or 6 guys of several other ethnicities, and 5 or 6 nerdy glasses-wearing white guys with bad fashion sense. I got some of them confused sometimes. They all had somewhere to hide. They could blurt something out without much consequence.

If you would like more people to participate in your class, make sure you don't punish "bad" participation at all. It may be fun to be the person who answers a question with "I see somebody skipped the pre class reading" and then just turn away, but it ensures a large chunk of the class will not ask that sort of question again, and those who do will use up class time with defensive speeches about how they were reading the blah and blah "and on page (flip flip yes here it is, 73) it says (read sentence) and so I was wondering whether "permanent" is really appropriate here" and so on.

You can also call on students who don't ask many questions, asking them questions. My PhD supervisor did this constantly. Like 5-10 times an hour. "... and so if we reduce this completely, the result is ... Mrs Gregory?" (he was such a formal guy, called us all Mr and Mrs) and if I was following I would say the next line in the work, and if I wasn't I would say "I don't know" and he would call on someone else. This kind of approach keeps people engaged (you never know when you'll be called on) and gives everyone practice speaking up in class. (Plus it teaches you when to say "I don't know" - and he never had a problem with us not knowing.)

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    -1 for "this kind of approach keeps people engaged". I would have probably quit my Ph.D. if I had a supervisor like yours. – Martin Argerami Oct 29 '17 at 20:42
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    +1 for "this kind of approach keeps people engaged." I would probably have studied harder if I had had supervisors like yours. – Clearer Oct 29 '17 at 21:13
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    Great answer, but a problem with the calling-on approach is that you'll only call on the students whose names you remember... Great if you have a 10-student class, but if we're talking of 25 students, the students I remember are the "visibly different" ones mostly, and the shoe has ended up on the other foot... – darij grinberg Oct 29 '17 at 22:35
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    It quickly becomes an embarrassment to ask the same person for their name every lecture for 10 lectures in a row (or mis-name them); at some point I give up. Also, I tend to learn the ladies' names more quickly when they are in the minority (which they often are), because it's just a smaller sample; at some point, the men in the audience probably get the wrong idea from that. Probably nothing that I should worry about professionally, but embarrassments break my focus and distract me from teaching. Where does one learn these things? – darij grinberg Oct 30 '17 at 0:32
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    I frequently find myself in classrooms with many female and few male students. Still male students seem to participate a lot more actively, which goes against your claim that it's a matter of "being different". – sgf Oct 30 '17 at 8:26
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The point is that in an ideal world we would like people's academic and later career success to be determined solely by their intrinsic talent and by how hard they work. Unfortunately other factors that ought to be irrelevant get in the way and also end up having an effect. One of many examples is the particular issue you mentioned, which is the fact that someone who is very shy and never asks questions is likely to hurt their success in various ways.

Now, this is true irrespective of gender, but it becomes a gender issue if/when/to the extent that (in a particular setting or context) female students may find it more difficult or intimidating to ask questions than male students, with the effect that they end up (statistically, as a group - obviously this does not necessarily apply to any individual student) unfairly disadvantaged in similar ways to how shy students in general are disadvantaged. I can't say from personal experience whether that's true, but I've certainly read many testimonials (that seemed credible to me) to that effect: a female in a classroom or workplace that is almost exclusively male (and often hostile to women in subtle ways that are hard to gauge or quantify) may find it more difficult to make her voice heard effectively than her male colleagues do. I don't know about you, but it sure sounds like an "issue" to me.

Hope this clarifies things. And please listen to your adviser's advice to speak up more in class. That sounds like good advice regardless of whether you are male or female.

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(This is purely anecdotal but) I do think that within some contexts there is a major issue in terms of gender representation in class participation. This however isn't due to some biological difference, its because of the context and environment. Take STEM for example. It can often be quite daunting or difficult to speak out to ask questions (requiring clarification can be seen as weakness) and in an industry that is so heavily dominated by males (less than 20% female in engineering at my uni I believe) it can make it hard for women to participate as it brings a lot of, sometimes unwanted, attention to themselves. The possibility that they may make a mistake or appear confused presents another opportunity for a false and harmful stereotype that men are superior to women in the field to be perpetuated and so I think women sometimes refrain from participating to avoid this.

This obviously is a little more case specific, and I feel that in other subjects/industries, women are better represented and participate at a higher capacity.

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    I will just throw out an anecdote to support this: I have a class of mostly women. In my class, the women speak a lot, the men are mostly taciturn. The exception is one very talkative male who talks much but contributes little of value. – Dawn Oct 29 '17 at 13:19
  • I see no problem here, in my class we where ~90% males and too many of us would just rush and did all what they can to help if any of the ladies said "I need the notes from the class I missed yesterday". Good luck to me if I was looking for the same notes... Look at both the pros and the cons, always – Caterpillaraoz Oct 30 '17 at 13:10
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    As a woman in a STEM major, I can very much agree with this answer. I was often the only female student in any of my CS classes (at the very most, one of three), and rarely spoke out even though I usually knew the answers or had relevant questions. I sat in the back and did my level best to avoid drawing attention to myself during class time, though I was happy enough to visit office hours and chat with a professor if I was having trouble. I absolutely did not want to interact with most of the people in my classes unless it was required. – senschen Oct 31 '17 at 14:59
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Is this a real phenomenon?

Yes. Gender differences in classroom participation have been noted and explored by sociologists probably since the moment women were admitted into college classrooms with men. Five seconds with google gave me this article whose introduction gives an overview of the research into this question going back to at least the '70s.

Why is it an issue?

Because classroom participation is associated with higher grades/achievements. I'm not in the field so I can't tell you about the state of the evidence for causality here, but there's several reasons to think that there is at least a partial causal relationship (such as what you said about recommendation letters), and that if women were able to engage in the classroom in the same way as men, this would improve their grades. (Note that this isn't quite the same thing as just talking more: there are some complicating factors, such as women being perceived as talking too much/dominating the conversation as soon as 30% of speaking time is used by women. If women 'just speak up more' they get different results than when men do.)

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Your question is broad, but I will respond to this part:

"(professors) have no way to know whether the students are actually learning"

Yes, this is an issue, and it can be fixed by using formal assessments before and after the course to determine what students learn.

There are certainly important interactions between gender and class participation, but they would depend on your local culture and how your classroom is run.

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    Formal assessments do not address the 'are they actually learning?' problem, because the question isn't 'have the students acquired knowledge over this period of time?' but 'am I pitching my teaching at the right level to match the students' understanding and therefore contributing to their learning?'. – Jessica B Oct 29 '17 at 7:50
  • @JessicaB I disagree. The goal of teaching is for students to acquire knowledge and skills. And I do not see why formal assessment cannot contribute to your question also. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 29 '17 at 19:16
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Another reason why overparticipation by male students and underparticipation by female students is generally not healthy is that participation by women can have many positive effects on the science being done in the class or the department. (Substitute your endeavor for the word "science" if you wish.)


There are lots of reasons girls' participation drops off (which I think starts to occur noticeably in approximately 6th grade).

1 The boys are all falling over themselves showing off their prowess solving messy algebraic equations that have a lot of fractions with large denominators. What a waste of time, if I've got the procedure down already. [Notice, the positive effect on the class this point of view would have (if truly listened to)?]

2 Validating the teacher's need for certain types of responses from students should not be my responsibility. I'm here for my own education, not to stroke the teacher.

3 I can be more productive, for example getting through the homework assignment during class, if I don't waste my time doing show-offy things like certain annoying male classmates.

4 Is it really necessary for all the word problems to be about rocket trajectories and heat-seeking particles? Hey, could we have a little variety here?

5 I like math, but I can't see myself teaching a math class, because most, or all, of my math teachers starting in nth grade have been men.

6 When we do group work, the boy(s) in the group always dominate(s) the discussion, and arrogantly tries to takes all the credit for what our group did. This is embarrassing. I will try to disappear into the woodwork now.

7 My (male) teacher admired my earrings last week, and this made me extremely uncomfortable. I will do my best to be quiet and disappear into the woodwork. It makes me uncomfortable when he looks at me or calls my name.

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I can share my part of experiences in this regard. It is pretty common to observe what you have observed. I have a class size of 60 (an elective course) and I am the lecturer.

In one of the lecture hour, I have a problem (in Computer Science) on the board to be solved many students. I was feeling that the class is not interactive. So, I made a set of subgroups in which each group contained 5-6 students. The ratio of female students to male students is too low (say 3:10).

The interaction between me and my students really improved because of this classroom experiment.

Overall, these are my observation:

  1. Many female students do not participate because the ratio is skewed.
  2. There is no active student group, in the sense that the course might not be of interest. Then, it is the responsibility of the lecturer to make it interesting.
  3. Asking easy questions first and then increasing the hardness of questions with time. Giving everyone to speak. So, here questions with the very easy answer would help the students to speak up.
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There is a TED talk that touches on this. In the talk, Dr Cuddy describes how the level of cortisol can change how comfortable you are taking risks. Folk with more cortisol experience more fear of social embarrassment and are more cautious. In particular, in a group setting they will try and avoid drawing attention to themselves, and will ask fewer questions. Regarding non-contributions in groups;

I notice a couple of things about this. One, you're not going to be surprised. It seems to be related to gender. So women are much more likely to do this kind of thing than men.

Normally the "biological difference" argument is nonsense, but here I think it at least part of the truth.

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    Cortisol is induced by stress. An underrepresented person is likely to experience more stress in a given situation than a well represented person, all else equal. This is a far simpler explanation than the "biological differences fairy." – reve_etrange Oct 31 '17 at 2:10
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    @TheoreticalPerson: You might be interested in the recent ny times article about Amy Cuddy and her research/TED-talk etc. Quite a number of questions have been raised about her study including non-replicability. Her own collaborator (Dana Carney) of the original research has distanced herself from Amy Cuddy. – Just_to_Answer Nov 4 '17 at 19:24
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is [participation by gender in class] a real phenomenon?

A research study on this showed that it varies by the type of environment - they looked at the web classes versus in person classes. This still doesn't consider many other possible factors:

  • What's the make-up of the class (equal gender ratio) and how does this relate to who talks more?
  • What's the topic of the class and does this relate to who talks more?
  • When we say that men are more talkative in person classes, are we talking about ALL of the men, or a select few. IE: my own observation in 50+ classes I've been in suggests its always the same few men who are talkative, while the majority say nothing. But a sample size of 50? Statistically irrelevant.
  • Is the talking relevant to the topic? Does it indicate misunderstanding? Is it actually moving the class forward? IE: a person who asks a lot of questions may not understand; people may participate less if they understand more, such as a person never asking a question because he understands everything and doesn't need to. Women are excelling in school more than men, so if we assume women participate less than men, does that mean they're not learning? The data doesn't support that at all.
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I was a part time elective teacher at a private school for a few years. (These were all high school kids either in their freshmen or sophomore years; I taught Health/Safety and Driver's education, and between those two classes, I've probably only taught Health/Safety class maybe once or twice -ever- in a given school quarter).

With that said, here's my two cents on your question: 1. I've always avoided trying to derive any particular trend correlating between gender/participation. I've seen my shares of kids (of any gender) who do well in my classes, and quite a few (again, of any gender) who do poorly.

  1. As far as I know, towawrds the middle of the school session (as I'd be running 8 week courses in either subject), kids do get quite rowdy prior to the midterms, and once again upon the eve of finals. In the summertime, this is where I'd generally see the female students act louder in class. Males, too. Again it depends on what types of kids would be enrolled in class.

  2. Now who gets the prize for most disruptive? BOTH.

  3. Maybe one other instance where I've seen one gender out-particpate the other is when I'd have a higher male to female ratio in attendance (i've had classes as little as 10-15 students before and all but like 3 were male). In which case any of the females would not nearly be as active.

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