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Problems with Problem Sets

11/10/2011

A friend pointed me to an interesting new article in Physics Today titled “Problems with problem sets” (sorry, it’s behind a paywall).  The abstract states:

Undergraduate physics problem sets and textbook examples often assume prior knowledge that is more common in men than in women. Could that difference be deterring women from pursuing careers in physics?

Their argument is based off of a review of physics problems that start off like this example:

The 200-kg steel hammerhead of a pile driver is lifted 3.00 m above the top of a vertical I-beam being driven into the ground. The hammerhead is then dropped, driving the I-beam 7.4 cm deeper into the ground. . . .

If you’re not familiar with those construction terms, it’s more difficult to approach this problem.  Their argument is that due to gender socialization, men are more likely than women to be familiar with these terms, and therefore one group of people is being put at a disadvantage.  If you can access the article, I highly suggest reading the whole thing, because the writers do an excellent job of laying out their argument and addressing the caveats.

They suggest, for the example above, changing the wording to this:

A cylindrical rod is being driven into the ground by a machine that drops a heavy weight on it, lifts the weight, and drops it again. Such a machine, called a pile driver, is frequently used in construction projects.

My first thought when reading the article was: yes.  There was definitely a difference with my male classmates in the background that I brought to my college physics experience; I think in my circumstances, it played out much more in the lab than in problem sets.  I went to a small school that did not use the same textbooks as other intro physics courses, so I was personally unfamiliar with the wording of the problems presented here.  Glad I was spared that, thank you Professors!  Still, this issue reminded me of what I previously wrote regarding Girl Scouts vs. Boy Scouts, as one anecdote for how gender socialization could impact how one reads these physics problems.  Beyond that, I’m assuming readers are somewhat familiar with how gender socialization could be important here.

But aside from my reaction, I was a bit surprised by the reactions of some other folks, so I wanted to address potential issues here.

First, it’s important to remember that to say that these problems are biased towards men does not mean every man is at an advantage and every woman is at a disadvantage.  It means that with a large enough sample, you’re going to have more men familiar with the terminology than women.  Every person has their own unique background, but on the whole boys are more likely to have participated in activities and played with toys that given them knowledge of tools, construction, engineering, etc.  So while many men can say “I have no idea what that means!” and many women can say “Duh of course I know what an I-beam is!” the point still stands.

Second, gender is admittedly but one of many reasons why a person would or would not be familiar with construction terms.  You can talk about class differences, age differences, differences in whether or not you had mono the week that your teacher talked about certain tools in shop class in 11th grade, whatever.  To recognize the existence of other groups potentially biased by these questions does not negate the fact that gender can play a huge role.  Furthermore, that’s an excellent argument for changing the wording, because the questions should be clear to everyone!  The article is not saying “We need to change the wording so women will understand,” it’s saying “We need to change the wording so everyone can understand, and we’ll help a lot of women in particular, among others.”

I would also want to stress that obviously, you’d have a hard time finding a person who would say “I quite my physics major because I didn’t know what a pile driver was.”  Some people will get by just fine picking up these things along the way, but others won’t.  The reason why is that things like this can add up to the feeling of “I don’t belong here in this class” or “I don’t have the ability to succeed in this.”  Studies have shown that women are often less confident in their math abilities than their equally talented male counterparts, so even receiving the same grade on a confusing assignment can result in the feelings I mentioned.  Again, this is statistically speaking, on the large scale.  Though I would also point out that it’s important to address the problem from the other direction, by working to improve confidence!

Finally, one person said that if you fix this bias, you’ll just introduce another bias.  When I called this out as fatalistic, they argued they were just being cautious, that you’d have to make sure the new bias is less than the old.  Well, sure!  Obviously no one would advocate for introducing new biases!  But that’s not a reason to stop continuing along in the process of making sure problem sets are accessible to everyone (given of course the math and science pre-reqs of the course, which in the rewritten example above, seems fine).  I would obviously advocate caution when writing such problem sets, and many educators have studied this issue extensively, so that prior knowledge should be applied as well.  This is simply adding more knowledge to that field.  Will we have to continue to study how problem sets are written?  Of course, but that’s not a reason to not act upon this observation.

Overall, though this was not a “scientific study” but more of a set of observations and suggestions, I thought it was useful for current and future physics teachers to keep in mind.

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