College biology classes have recently begun transitioning from a traditional lecture format to a more active approach to learning. As a result, students tend to work together and interact more, making them likely to compare themselves to other students in the class.

Researchers at Arizona State University wanted to understand the characteristics that affect students' perception of their own intelligence compared to that of other students. Katelyn Cooper, lead author on the study, and senior author Sara Brownell interviewed hundreds of students about their active learning experiences.

When students were asked if they thought they were smarter than or less smart than their groupmate, men were over three times more likely than women to think they were smarter.

“We noticed when students are asked to work with other students, they are nervous others are perceiving them as ‘stupid.’ That’s the actual language they use,” Cooper told TheDoctor. The researchers also saw that women were talking about this phenomenon more often than men.

“I think boys and girls are sent subtle messages from the time they are very young, and that message is ‘Science is for boys, and not girls!’,” said Cooper. Once young women are actually in college biology classrooms, that message can undermine how confident they are in their own abilities.

Students enrolled in a large, upper-level undergraduate physiology course took part in the study. The 244 students were asked to estimate their own intelligence compared to that of everyone else in the class, and to that of the student they worked most closely with, their groupmate. Of the students who completed all phases of the study, 130 were women (64.4 percent), 70 were men (34.7 percent) and two students identified as other.

Men were far more likely than women to perceive themselves as smarter than their classmates. The average GPA — grade point average — of students in the class was 3.3. A man with a 3.3 GPA was likely to believe that he is smarter than 66 percent of the other students in the physiology class. A woman with the same GPA was likely to say she was smarter than only 54 percent of the other members of the class.

When students were asked if they thought they were smarter than or less smart than their groupmate, men were over three times more likely than women to think they were smarter.

This difference in men and women's perceptions of their intelligence relative to others, particularly those students with whom they have worked most closely, tends to mean women participate less in class discussions than men do. Students who think they are smarter than people who are their groupmates are three times more likely to participate in class discussions than students who don't believe they are as smart as their groupmate, so men tend to speak up in class discussions more than women do.

Self-perceptions like these can affect a student's college career. Brownell believes that women may choose to forgo a career in the sciences because they think they are not smart enough. This is a difficult problem to fix, explains Brownell, an assistant professor, because this mindset has been engrained in women for so long. She believes a good place to start is to structure group work to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard, “Instructors can talk about how important it is for students to hear from everyone in the group.”

Role models help, too. Cooper believes giving “female students female role models who are really confident in their abilities to do science,” could also help.

Cooper and Brownell would like to extend their work to classes in other STEM disciplines in which women are more of a minority. They also hope to study classes of other sizes to see if class size affects how intelligent students of both sexes perceive themselves to be.

The study is published in Advances in Physiology Education.