Gender, Self-Assessment, and Classroom Experiences in AP Physics 1

This post originally appeared as an article in The Physics Teacher:

Stoeckel, M. (2020). Gender, self-assessment, and classroom experiences in AP Physics 1. The Physics Teacher, 58, 399-401. https://doi.org/10.1119/10.0001836

One of the many ways issues of underrepresentation appears in the physics classroom is female students frequently have a lower perception of their performance and ability than their male peers1, 2, 3, 4. Understanding how classroom experiences impact students’ confidence, especially for underrepresented students, can provide an important guide to designing physics classrooms where every student sees themselves as capable of learning and doing physics. To explore these issues in my AP Physics 1 classroom, I started asking my students to self-assess as part of my assessment process, allowing me to collect data comparing students’ perceptions to their actual performance. I also conducted interviews and collected student reflections to gain insights into the classroom experiences that impacted students’ confidence in physics. My students made it clear that discovering concepts in the lab contributed to their confidence. Girls also built confidence from teacher feedback, even on assessments where they scored poorly, while boys saw peer interactions as a source of confidence.

Confidence & Why It Matters

Confidence describes a students’ perceptions with respect to actual achievement and is often a precursor to self-efficacy5. Self-efficacy refers to a students’ beliefs about their ability to achieve particular goals and is shaped by four major types of experiences: performance accomplishments, where the individual demonstrates mastery; vicarious experiences, where the individual watches someone they relate to demonstrate mastery; verbal persuasion, where someone else expresses their belief in the individual’s abilities; and emotional arousal, which describes the individual’s mental and emotional state during a task6.

Self-efficacy and confidence are important not only because they correlate with academic success6, but also because they appear to be connected to issues of underrepresentation in physics. Women in introductory physics courses tend to have much lower confidence than men1, 2, 3, 4. Marshman et al. also found that while the confidence of both men and women declined during an introductory physics course, the decline was much greater for women4, suggesting that understanding how classroom experiences impact confidence is an important piece of understanding issues of underrepresentation.

Quantitative Data Collection & Results

This study focuses on AP Physics 1 at a suburban high school. AP Physics 1 is a year-long elective taken almost exclusively by seniors. The curriculum for the course is loosely based on Modeling Instruction7. Typically, around 40 students per year, approximately 10% of a graduating class, enroll in AP Physics 1. 31% of the students in the course are girls, which is  stark contrast to both the school’s non-AP physics course and to other Advanced Placement courses in the school, including AP Chemistry, where around 50% of the students are girls, suggesting there is an issue in the school unique to AP Physics 1. 

In the course, students take assessments approximately once per week where they receive a score on a scale of 2 to 5 for each learning target assessed. At the end of each assessment, I ask students to predict their score for each learning target, then complete a short written reflection, as shown in figure 1. Over the course of two years, I recorded the scores students predicted, along with their actual scores for each learning target. I collected this data for a total of 92 students, 29 of which were girls.

Figure 1: Sample self-assessment

I put these scores and self-assessments into a framework called the CCL Confidence Achievement Window5. This framework compares students’ confidence and actual achievement to sort them into four profiles: public, with high confidence and high achievement; underestimating, with low confidence and high achievement; unknown, with low confidence and low achievement; and overestimating, with high confidence and low achievement The public and unknown profiles are considered to have good calibration between students’ achievement and confidence, while the underestimating and overestimating profiles indicate poor calibration.

For each student, I calculated total actual scores and total self-assessment scores as a fraction of the possible points. I used the self-assessment values as a measure of confidence and the actual score values as a measure of achievement in order to plot each student onto a CCL Confidence Achievement Window5, as shown in figure 2. The majority of students had fairly good calibration between their self-assessment and actual scores, falling into the public and unknown profiles. In addition, boys and girls fell into each profile at similar rates, suggesting boys and girls in this classroom had similar degrees of overall confidence. 

Figure 2: CCL Confidence-Achievement Window

What Affected Confidence?

To understand how my students developed such a well-calibrated sense of their achievement, regardless of their gender, during the second year of data collection, I also recorded the responses students had to the open-ended prompt I included on the self-assessments, such as the one in figure 1, from the 52 students enrolled in the course that year. In addition, I interviewed ten student volunteers at the end of the second year about the experiences that affected their confidence. Three key themes emerged from the qualitative data: labs, peer interactions during whiteboarding, and assessment feedback.

Labs

On nearly every assessment reflection, students consistently mentioned labs as helping them achieve mastery, usually mentioning a specific lab done as part of the preceding unit, regardless of their gender. The interviews revealed what about the labs helped students develop their sense of confidence. In the Modeling7 approach, a new topic typically begins with a guided inquiry lab followed by a whole-class discussion of the results that allows students to develop conceptual and mathematical models for the new topic. The students I interviewed described this approach as giving them a sense of ownership of the material and showing them that they could discover new concepts, suggesting these labs were an opportunity for performance accomplishments, where students developed self-efficacy by demonstrating their own mastery of key skills6. As one girl put it:

“I think the self-discovery thing, like when you figure it out yourself, that’s always really good. Cause it makes you feel like you’re doing it yourself and you’re this scientist that knows everything.”

Students in the interviews also described making the transition from a lab to written problems as an important moment. Figuring out for themselves how to apply what they discovered in the lab to a new type of problem was another performance accomplishment That helped students see themselves as capable. In the words of one boy:

“I think when, not the lab, but after a lab that we do. So we do a lab that hammers at different the way that physics works and we get a problem set the day after. That it’s the same–they’re not the same thing, but it’s like the same concept. And then it’s like I semi-understand what we did yesterday and then we practice it and all the sudden, I just really understand the problems.”

Interestingly, during the interviews, several students also talked about labs as detrimental to their confidence; one boy even specifically described labs as having both a positive and negative effect on his confidence. Most students had minimal exposure to guided inquiry prior to AP Physics 1, resulting in some frustration for students. In interviews, students interpreted the confusion, mistakes, and other issues that are a normal part of guided inquiry as evidence they were not good at physics, especially if they had done well in previous science courses. This suggests it is critical to foster a classroom culture that normalizes confusion as part of the learning process to maintain the positive impact of labs on confidence.

Whiteboarding & Peer Interactions

The other major activity students mentioned on their self-assessments was whiteboarding, where students work in small groups to prepare a whiteboard with the solution to a problem which is then presented to the class. For boys, these activities were also an opportunity to build self-efficacy through verbal persuasion6. In the interviews, several boys brought up peer responses to their input during these activities, typically recalling specific problems and exchanges, often from several months prior, suggesting peer interactions had a lasting impact on students. 

By contrast, while girls also said whiteboarding helped them master the content, only one girl spoke about peer interactions during the interviews. She recalled a specific exchange, in which her all-male group responded positively to her input, but she interpreted it as evidence she was fooling her peers, rather than an affirmation of her abilities:

“I think it’s one of those things where I’m generally a smart person, so they’d just assume that I kinda know what I’m doing, but they’re all super good at physics so I think they overestimate my abilities almost.”

This raises the question of what contributed to the very different recollections of peer interactions. Did boys have more interactions than girls where peers affirmed their abilities, or did girls have other experiences that lead them to view those interactions with a greater distrust?

Assessment Feedback

During the interviews, both boys and girls talked about in-class assessments, especially when I asked whether they think I believe they are good at physics. Most of the boys brought up specific assessments where they earned high scores as evidence of their physics ability. However, the girls talked about assessments very differently. Rather than talking about assessments where they had done well, the girls tended to talk about assessments where they had done poorly. The girls saw the kind of feedback I wrote on their assessments, along with a course policy encouraging retakes, as evidence that I saw them as capable of mastering the material, regardless of their initial score. As one girl put it:

“[You] offer constructive criticism when needed and it’s really helpful when trying to understand what I did incorrectly on quizzes and labs. So I believe that feedback really shows that [you] believe that I can do the course.”

For these girls, verbal persuasion in the form of my feedback did not have to be paired with a performance accomplishment to have a positive impact on their confidence. 

Conclusions

Confidence is shaped by students’ experiences in the classroom, and understanding those experiences is particularly important for addressing issues of underrepresentation. In this study, students saw discovering a new concept in the lab and figuring out how to apply it to problems as particularly important opportunities for performance accomplishment, with girls in particular reporting less confidence on topics where they had fewer of these opportunities. Students of both genders responded to verbal persuasion, though boys focused on peer interactions and girls focused on teacher feedback, especially on assessments where they performed poorly. Designing a classroom where all students have the opportunity to develop a sense of confidence and self-efficacy means ensuring that all students have access to these kinds of experiences. It also means listening to students to better understand not only the kind of activities but the critical elements of activities that enable students to see themselves as good at physics.

References

  1. Emily M. Marshman, Z. Yasmin Kalender, Timothy Nokes-Malach, Christian Schunn, & Chandralekha Singh, “Female students with A’s have similar physics self-efficacy as male students with C’s in introductory courses: A cause for alarm?” Phys. Rev. Phys. Ed. Res., 14, 020123 (December 2018)
  2. Tamjid Mujtaba, & Michael J. Reiss, “Inequality in experiences of physics education: Secondary school girls’ and boys’ perceptions of their physics education and intentions to continue with physics after the age of 16,” International Journal of Science Education, 35, 1824-1845 (July 2013)
  3. Jayson M. Nissen & Jonathan T. Shemwell, “Gender, experience, and self-efficacy in introductory physics,” Phys. Rev. Phys. Ed. Res., 12, 020105 (August 2016)
  4. Emily M. Marshman, Z. Yasmin Kalender, Christian Schunn, Timothy Nokes-Malach, & Chandralekha Singh, “A longitudinal analysis of students’ motivational characteristics in introductory physics courses: Gender differences,” Canadian Journal of Physics, 96, 391-405 (May 2017)
  5. Lesa M. Covington Clarkson, Quintin U. Love, & Forster D. Ntow, “How confidence relates to mathematics achievement: A new framework,” Mathematics Education and Life at Times of Crisis, 441-451 (April 2017)
  6. Albert Bandura, “Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change,” Psychological Review, 84, 191-215 (January 1977)
  7. Jane Jackson, Larry Dukerich, & David Hestenes, “Modeling instruction: An effective model for science education,” Science Educator, 17, 10-17 (Spring 2008)
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