Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Physics

First Advisor

Noah D. Finkelstein

Second Advisor

Steven J. Pollock Date

Third Advisor

Paul D. Beale

Abstract

The underrepresentation and underperformance of females in physics has been well documented and has long concerned policy-makers, educators, and the physics community. In this thesis, we focus on gender disparities in the first- and second-semester introductory, calculus-based physics courses at the University of Colorado. Success in these courses is critical for future study and careers in physics (and other sciences). Using data gathered from roughly 10,000 undergraduate students, we identify and model gender differences in the introductory physics courses in three areas: student performance, retention, and psychological factors. We observe gender differences on several measures in the introductory physics courses: females are less likely to take a high school physics course than males and have lower standardized mathematics test scores; males outscore females on both pre- and post-course conceptual physics surveys and in-class exams; and males have more expert-like attitudes and beliefs about physics than females. These background differences of males and females account for 60% to 70% of the gender gap that we observe on a post-course survey of conceptual physics understanding. In analyzing underlying psychological factors of learning, we find that female students report lower self-confidence related to succeeding in the introductory courses (self-efficacy) and are less likely to report seeing themselves as a "physics person". Students' self-efficacy beliefs are significant predictors of their performance, even when measures of physics and mathematics background are controlled, and account for an additional 10% of the gender gap. Informed by results from these studies, we implemented and tested a psychological, self-affirmation intervention aimed at enhancing female students' performance in Physics 1. Self-affirmation reduced the gender gap in performance on both in-class exams and the post-course conceptual physics survey. Further, the benefit of the self-affirmation was strongest for females who endorsed the stereotype that men do better than women in physics. The findings of this thesis suggest that there are multiple factors that contribute to the underperformance of females in physics. Establishing this model of gender differences is a first step towards increasing females' participation and performance in physics, and can be used to guide future interventions to address the disparities.

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