According to a new study, a brief writing exercise can help women in college physics classes improve their academic performance and reduce some of the well-documented differences between male and female science students. The writing exercise seems particularly beneficial to female students who tend to subscribe to the negative stereotype that males perform better in physics, the researchers say.

Apparently, awareness of this so-called gender gap can negatively affect women's performance on their physics exams. But, this rather simple writing exercise—aimed at re-affirming an individual's core values—appears to narrow the gap and level the playing field for women who find themselves in this frequently stereotyped demographic.

In light of their findings, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado at Boulder and colleagues from Colorado and California suggest that similar value-affirmation exercises might help to close the gender gap further. Their research will appear in the 26 November issue of the journal Science, which is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

"The introductory course we investigated in this study is intended for students planning to be science majors," Miyake said. "So, the women in that course probably did well in high school science courses, are interested in science, and are highly motivated to do well. The fact that we found a large reduction in the gender gap for affirmed women tells you that some psychological processes are affecting women's performance on exams and how powerful those influences are."

This new experiment follows a previous study by some of the same researchers about the positive long-term effects of a similar writing exercise on African American seventh graders at a public school.

In the new study, Miyake and his colleagues tested 399 male and female college students in an introductory physics class. During the first and fourth weeks of the class, the researchers asked a randomly selected group of the students to write about their personally important values, such as friends and family, for 15 minutes. Other students were randomly placed into a control group and asked to write about their least important values and to explain why they might be important to other people.

The values-affirmation exercise turned out to be a promising intervention that appears to provide a measurable boost for women—but not for men—during both their in-class multiple-choice exams and a national, standardized test of conceptual mastery of physics, the researchers say.

The writing exercise helped reduce the difference between male and female academic performance in the 15-week physics class. More women earned B's in the affirmation group than in the control group—and more women earned C's in the control group than in the affirmation group. The results of a survey given to the students indicate that the resulting academic improvement was most pronounced in women who believed that men generally performed better at physics. In the control group, women's exam scores tended to decrease as their level of endorsement of the stereotype increased. But, this negative relationship between stereotype endorsement and exam scores could not be found in the affirmation group. According to Miyake, "These results tell us that writing self-affirming essays improved the affirmed women's exam performances by alleviating their anxiety related to being seen in light of negative stereotypes about women in science."

"Imagine getting a B in that class as opposed to a C," Miyake said. "That difference is big psychologically for women who are considering further education in science—even a career in science. It gives you a huge boost in confidence and it might motivate you to take more science courses."

"Although our findings are promising, I'd like to caution that the values affirmation intervention is not a silver bullet that magically makes the gender achievement gap disappear altogether," Miyake concluded. "The situation is more complicated than that, and there are many factors contributing to the gender gap in some STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. But, this values affirmation intervention holds promise especially when it's combined with the sort of educational reforms that are known to improve all students' learning. Provided that we create rich learning opportunities for all students, psychological interventions like this may help make challenging and possibly intimidating STEM courses less intimidating and more accessible to a larger fraction of the student population—one that has historically not been as well prepared for or supported in these environments."