Sitting with women in class may improve your GPA and confidence, UMN study says

University researchers found students' grades increased with the amount of women in the course.

Students give presentations in BIOL 3211 - Physiology of Humans and Other Animals in an active learning classroom in Bruininks Hall on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Easton Green

Students give presentations in BIOL 3211 - Physiology of Humans and Other Animals in an active learning classroom in Bruininks Hall on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Wesley Hortenbach

Studying with women can improve grades in class, according to University of Minnesota researchers. 

In a study published earlier this month, course grades and peer and self-evaluations improved as students worked with more women in groups. The study points to the importance of considering group composition in the classroom, particularly in active learning spaces. 

In fall 2016, three introductory biology classes at the University intentionally assigned their 391 students who self-identified as male or female to tables of all women, 75 percent women, half women, 25 percent women and no women.

As the number of women at a table increased, so did the grades of both men and women. The all-women group saw the most improvement compared to the others.

Researchers identified this as an added benefit of the inclusion of women in STEM fields and showed an empirical incentive to encourage their participation in science, said Sehoya Cotner, a professor who taught one of the courses.

Cotner attributes this correlation to cultural factors and believes women and men may have seen improvement for different reasons.

“Because of various dynamics between men and women, such as manipulating the conversation, talking louder or mansplaining, women might have more of an opportunity to flourish when around other women,” Cotner said. 

Because the only conclusive thing is what the results are and not why they happened, researchers caution against interpreting this data in a way that vilifies men and believe the fact men do better in the presence of women suggests these relationships are complicated. 

“However, I’d prefer not to approach this problem as one in which men, by their very presence, negatively affect women,” Cotner said. “Rather, how can we understand gender-based group interactions in a way that allows educators to make learning more equitable.”

Researchers say college-aged students may be susceptible to conform to traditional gender roles in social learning environments which may explain why men’s grades improved with more women.

“There might be increased pressure on men to fill those roles when women are around, like taking a leadership positions or articulating thoughts to the group, which are actually traits we want to promote and were induced in a male minority group,” said Cissy Ballen, an author of the study.

 After the course was completed, researchers examined participation and perceptions quantitatively through the students’ peer and self-evaluations. 

“We found that, overall, men rated themselves and their peers higher than women rated themselves and their peers,” Ballen said.

The study also found that groups with more women had higher self and peer-evaluation scores.

The researchers hope their findings influence how professors structure their classrooms in hopes of raising the female retention rate, especially in STEM fields.

“[This study shows] that fairly subtle differences in teaching practices and classroom set-up can significantly influence student performance,” said Valery Forbes, dean of the College of Biological Sciences.

For example, instead of distributing women randomly around a female-minority classroom, seating them together could give them a greater chance of success, Cotner said.

“As educators, we want all of our students to perform to the best of their ability, so we need to be aware of any unintentional barriers to performance that we may be creating in our classrooms,” Forbes said.

The researchers are now working on a new study analyzing the gender dynamics of various participation elements in lab classrooms.