Part of the Gender Gap in Majors May Lie in Intro Courses (Sort Of)

The following describes an interesting morphing of memes on the web and something that might be especially relevant to me and my colleagues at Mills College in our role as advisors.

Harvard Economist Cladia Goldin posted a piece back when Janet Yellen was first nominated to head the Federal Reserve. She wondered whether this new “role model” might increase the number of women who major in economics. She wrote about some of her own research as well as that of others relevant to the question. In particular she discussed some work in which she discovered that
Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the “gateway” courses is steeper for women than for men.
In other other words, on average (assuming lots of things are equal) women may take a stronger “you can’t do this” signal from not getting an A in intro courses than do men. Evidence shows it happens in economics and some STEM fields too.
This does NOT, of course, imply we should pursue gender equity through grade inflation, but it does suggest that those of use who teach and mentor young women might focus on this particular point of leverage. Not unrelated is research by Chambliss and Takacs on how important intro courses are for influencing college major and career decisions. We should, perhaps, stop focusing our energy on distribution requirements and instead focus on what goes on in intro courses and in the first year advising context that surrounds them. It’s not unrelated to the message of a graduation speech I gave a few years back.

One can imagine that similar effects might exist in connection with other demographic differences.
The internet meme part is that the blog post was picked up the other day by a Washington Post writer, Catherine Rampell, and mixed in with some other research (finding that disciplines with lower grades had higher career payoffs) in a piece titled “Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later.” On Slate the headline read “Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They’re Too Concerned With Grades” but the article went in the direction of saying maybe it’s not all about wanting to find a major where one can do well grade-wise but rather a rational assessment of the likelihood of career success in various fields.  I’m sure a little googling will turn up even more morphs.

Will more of our daughters grow up to be economists?

Likelihood of Continuing in Major by Intro Grade and Sex

Claudia Goldin: Bloomberg View
Published: October 17, 2013 – 07:13 PM

Cambridge, Mass.: The nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve is an important milestone. But will her appointment as the central bank’s first female chief draw more undergraduate women to the field of economics?
Yellen’s emphasis on the human toll of recessions, along with her humanity, brilliance and intellect, could spur a greater number of women to become economists. But if history is any guide, there still is a long slog ahead.
Economics is an extremely popular major — for men. Ten percent to 20 percent of all male undergraduates concentrate in the field at the top 100 universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.
Nationwide, however, for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex. Among the top 100 liberal arts colleges, there are 2.6 males for every female economics major; there are 2.5 males for every female at the top 100 research universities.
Worse, these differences have widened over the last two decades.
Students often realize too late in their undergraduate studies that an understanding of economic concepts, modeling, statistics and econometrics is a helpful career and life tool. Many initially believe economics is only valuable for those who want to work in the financial and corporate sectors. (This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences are Eugene F. Fama, Robert J. Shiller and Lars Peter Hansen, men whose work focuses on financial markets.)
Many young women don’t seem to understand that economics is also for those who have broad intellectual interests and for those with research and policy interests in health, education, poverty, inequality, crime, obesity, the environment, terrorism or infectious disease. All students should be aware of the broad applications of economics when considering an undergraduate major.


Read the Rest at Bloomberg View

See Also

Evaluating and Assessing Short Intensive Courses

Two articles on the topic of assessing and evaluating short, intensive courses.  Most of the results appear positive in terms of learning outcomes, but there are a number of factors associated with variations in outcomes that appear worth paying attention to.

Using a database of over 45,000 observations from Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters, we investigate the link between course length and student learning. We find that, after controlling for student demographics and other characteristics, intensive courses do result in higher grades than traditional 16 week semester length courses and that this benefit peaks at about 4 weeks. By looking at future performance we are also able to show that the higher grades reflect a real increase in knowledge and are not the result of a “lowering of the bar” during summer. We discuss some of the policy implications of our findings.


Altogether, we found roughly 100 publications that, in varying degrees, addressed intensive courses. After reviewing the collective literature, we identified four major lines of related inquiry: 1) time and learning studies; 2) studies of educational outcomes comparing intensive and traditional formats; 3) studies comparing course requirements and practices between intensive and traditional 

Scott and Conrad finish their literature review with several sets of open research questions suggested by their research:


  1. How do course requirements and faculty expectations of students compare between intensive and traditional formats and, if different, how does this affect the learning environment and student learning outcomes?
  2. How do student’s study patterns compare between intensive and traditional length courses?

Learning Outcomes

  1. How do pedagogical approaches compare between intensive and traditional length courses and, if different, how do these variations affect learning?
  2. How does the amount of time-on-task (i.e., productive class time) compare between intensive and traditional-length courses?
  3. How do stress and fatigue affect learning in intensive courses?
  4. Are intensive courses intrinsically rewarding and if so, how does that affect the classroom experience and learning outcomes?
  5. How do the immediate (short-term) and long-term learning outcomes compare between intensive and traditional-length courses?
  6. How do different student groups compare in their ability to learn under intensive conditions? For example, do older and younger students learn equally well in intensive courses?
  7. How does the degree of intensity influence student achievement? Do three week courses yield equivalent results to eight-week courses?
  8. How does the subject matter influence outcomes in intensive courses?
  9. Which kinds and levels of learning are appropriate for intensive formats?
  10. How do course withdrawals and degree completion rates compare between students who enroll in intensive versus traditional courses?
  11. How do intensive courses influence a student’s attitude toward learning?

Optimizing Factors and Conditions

  1. What disciplines and types of courses are best suited for intensive formats?
  2. What type of students are best suited for intensive formats?
  3. What types of pedagogical styles and instructional practices are best suited for intensive formats? Must teaching strategies change for intensive courses to be effective?
  4. Can certain instructional practices optimize learning?
  5. Do learning strategies differ between intensive and traditional-length courses and if so, can students effectively “learn how to learn” in time compressed formats? In other words, can students be taught effective learning strategies for intensive courses that would enhance achievement outcomes?

See Also

John V. Kucsera & Dawn M. Zimmaro Comparing the Effectiveness of Intensive and Traditional CoursesCollege Teaching Volume 58, Issue 2, 2010, pages 62-68

NYT 9/2013 Study Sees Benefit in Courses With Nontenured Instructors

National Bureau of Economic Research study based on data from more than 15,000 students who arrived at Northwestern University from 2001 to 2008.

Study Sees Benefit in Courses With Nontenured Instructors 
Published: September 9, 2013  

While many higher education experts — and parents — bemoan the fact that tenured professors are a shrinking presence, now making up less than a quarter of the academic work force, a study released Monday found, surprisingly, that students in introductory classes learned more from outside instructors than from tenured or tenure-track professors.

Students taught by untenured faculty were more likely to take a second course in the discipline and more likely to earn a better grade in the next course than those whose first course was taught by a tenured or tenure-track instructor, the report said.


See Also

  1. Berrett, Dan. “Ad­juncts Are Bet­ter Teachers Than Tenured Professors, Study Finds.” Chronicle of Higher Education September 9, 2013.
  2. Figlio at SSRN
  3. Jaschik Scott. “The Adjunct Advantage.” Inside Higher Ed September 9, 2013
  4. Safdar, Khadeeja. “Students Learn Better From Professors Outside Tenure System.” Wall Street Journal Blog
  5. Schapiro President of Northwestern Page