A letter from a role model boosts female science students’ grades

Female researcher working with chemicalsBy Christian Jarrett

Women are underrepresented in science and technology careers, and female students are especially likely to drop out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degree courses. One cause is a relative lack of female role models, combined with feelings of not belonging in a male-dominated environment. This is why Ada Lovelace Day – the celebration of women in science and technology that takes place around the world every October – is so valuable. A new study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology shows how the principles behind the day could be implemented quickly and easily at universities, helping to boost female science students’ grades and reducing drop-out rates.

Sarah Herrmann and her colleagues surveyed two groups of first-year female students – 258 were studying psychology and 68 studying chemistry. The online survey came in the fifth week of the semester after their first exam. Crucially, as part of this, half of the students were shown a letter, ostensibly from a female grad student in their field, describing her university experience. The other half of the students skipped this step, and went straight to answering questions about their own background details.

Inspired by findings from prior research on the effects of role models, the researchers composed the letter with passages in which the female grad student emphasised how she’d overcome challenges, how she’d experienced feelings of not belonging (the idea being to normalise these feelings), and the value of a university science degree.

At the end of the semester, the students who’d read this letter from a role model achieved higher grades and were less likely to have dropped out. Specifically, the psych students who read the letter were 62 per cent less likely to receive a D, E or F grade or withdraw; the chemistry students were 77 per cent less likely to receive these grades or withdraw (as compared with students who didn’t read the letter).

We need more research to find out which aspects of the letter were important for these benefits, and why the letter had the effect it did. But for now the researchers said their study was the latest to show how “brief psychological interventions can exert, positive, long-term effects on academic performance”.

— The Effects of a Female Role Model on Academic Performance and Persistence of Women in STEM Courses

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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