Exploring the gender gap in the conceptual survey of electricity and magnetism

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The “gender gap” on various physics conceptual evaluations has been extensively studied. Men’s average pretest scores on the Force Concept Inventory and Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation are 13% higher than women’s, and post-test scores are on average 12% higher than women’s. This study analyzed the gender differences within the Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism (CSEM) in which the gender gap has been less well studied and is less consistent. In the current study, data collected from 1407 students (77% men, 23% women) in a calculus-based physics course over ten semesters showed that male students outperformed female students on the CSEM pretest (5%) and post-test (6%). Separate analyses were conducted for qualitative and quantitative problems on lab quizzes and course exams and showed that male students outperformed female students by 3% on qualitative quiz and exam problems. Male and female students performed equally on the quantitative course exam problems. The gender gaps within CSEM post-test scores, qualitative lab quiz scores, and qualitative exam scores were insignificant for students with a CSEM pretest score of 25% or less but grew as pretest scores increased. Structural equation modeling demonstrated that a latent variable, called Conceptual Physics Performance/Non-Quantitative (CPP/NonQnt), orthogonal to quantitative test performance was useful in explaining the differences observed in qualitative performance; this variable was most strongly related to CSEM post-test scores. The CPP/NonQnt of male students was 0.44 standard deviations higher than female students. The CSEM pretest measured CPP/NonQnt much less accurately for women (R2=4%) than for men (R2=17%). The failure to detect a gender gap for students scoring 25% or less on the pretest suggests that the CSEM instrument itself is not gender biased. The failure to find a performance difference in quantitative test performance while detecting a gap in qualitative performance suggests the qualitative differences do not result from psychological factors such as science anxiety or stereotype threat.
Original languageEnglish
Article number020114
JournalPhysical Review Physics Education Research
Issue number2
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

ID: 332946306