Speaking Out in the Classroom

New survey from Gallup finds that women are less likely than men to feel comfortable sharing views in the classroom that may conflict with their peers' opinions.

June 3, 2019
 
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Far more male college students than female students feel comfortable sharing their views in the classroom when they think they have a minority opinion, a new survey has found.

The creators of the report, Gallup, said that the gender gap is indicative of how women “interact” in higher education, despite being a majority on most campuses. (Gallup conducts some surveys for Inside Higher Ed, but this publication was not involved in this study.)

The topic of whether men, particularly white men, dominate classroom conversation has come under scrutiny before. Earlier this year at Dickinson College, a student's essay in the campus newspaper accusing white men of weighing in on issues which they had little knowledge ignited a nationwide debate.

“From a cultural perspective, a university can inspire students to feel comfortable by creating a culture in which students’ unique strengths, viewpoints and opinions are embraced,” Stephanie Marken, executive director of education research at Gallup, wrote in an email. “When a university embeds that into the fabric of the institution, it becomes far easier for faculty members to encourage students to express these views in the classrooms. If that culture does not exist, students can be resistant to share their views due to concern about judgment from others. Unfortunately, that means many students miss out on hearing conflicting views or alternative perspectives that we know are critical to their education.”

Between April and June last year, Gallup interviewed more than 5,100 recent graduates who earned bachelor’s degrees between 2010 and 2018. The students lived in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Gallup asked students to identify, on a scale from one to five, whether they had felt comfortable sharing ideas or opinions in the classroom that they believed were held by a minority of people -- one meant they strongly disagreed with the idea that they could share their opinion, and five meant they strongly agreed with the statement.

About 58 percent of the female graduates indicated they were confident sharing a minority opinion and gave either a four or a five on the survey.

But about 68 percent of men gave the same answers -- 10 percentage points more than the female graduates.

Marken said that professors should be trained to promote conversations in which students do conflict in their viewpoints.

“Many believe these differences are cultural and will take time to break, but if any organization or institution can do so, it’s an inclusive higher education institution that embraces what is unique and allows students to bring their whole selves to their educational experiences,” Marken wrote in her email.

Gallup also investigated whether there were potential differences between students of various races, but found none -- white students and black students felt equally comfortable speaking out in the classroom, Marken said.

Only about 14 percent of all the graduates gave a one or two -- indicating their discomfort with expressing their opinions and ideas. About 11 percent of women said two, versus 5 percent of men.

The researchers also found that when graduates felt supported speaking in the classroom, they had a greater emotional attachment to their institution. Graduates who were comfortable sharing were twice as likely than those who were not to be attached to their university.

As the report notes, this is a particularly important finding for institutions, as graduates with ties to their institution are more likely to be active alumni and donate.

Julie J. Park, associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that she was unsurprised that some female students do not feel comfortable speaking out in the classroom, given the issues of "climate."

"There may be environments where male students try to dominate the conversation," Park wrote in an email. "Ideally we’d like to see all of our students feeling comfortable to speak up, but because of issues of inequality, that might not always be the case."

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