Do smaller classes help reduce performance gaps in science fields? Yes, according to a new study in BioScience. Researchers looked at the impact of class size on undergraduates in 17 introductory biology courses at four different institutions: California State University Chico, Cornell University, the University of Puget Sound and the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. Analyzing exam scores, nonexam assessments and final course grades from 1,836 students, the researchers found that smaller class sizes effectively closed the performance gap for women. More specifically, they found that while women underperformed on high-stakes exams compared with their male counterparts as class size increased, women received higher scores than men on other kinds of assessments.
Underrepresented minority students underperformed compared with other students regardless of class size, suggesting that other factors in the educational environment are at play. "Even when large classes are a 'necessary evil,' there are many simple ways to make even big classrooms feel small for students," lead author Cissy Ballen, a postdoctoral associate in biology teaching and learning at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, said in a statement. "That includes group work, giving students more opportunities to interact with lecture material and instructors using inclusive teaching practices."