Stanford, California - Reducing class sizes and reforming grading systems may help reduce the gender gap in professional school settings, according to a new Stanford study.
"Our findings suggest that class size and pedagogical policy have a considerable role to play in addressing gender gaps in professional school," wrote Stanford law Professors Daniel Ho and Mark Kelman in a research article in the Journal of Legal Studies.
Pedagogy is the art or science of teaching and educational methods. In their study, the Stanford law professors examined the grades of Stanford law students in small or large classes from 2001 to 2012. The research capitalized on the fact that students were assigned to one first-year course in a small section, they wrote.
As Kelman, also the vice dean at Stanford Law School, said, "Randomization and mandatory classes mean that we can cleanly study the effects of class size, as self-selection is not an issue."
The data consisted of 15,689 grades assigned by 91 instructors to 1,897 students in that time period. In 2008, the law school notably changed the grading system and reduced some class sizes.
Teaching styles, class sizes
As Kelman and Ho pointed out, gender gaps in test scores and grades have been documented across a range of educational settings – in science, collegiate outcomes, and law and business schools. Research shows that Socratic and adversarial teaching styles – common to traditional law school instruction – may pose disadvantages for female students, who tend to participate less frequently than males in larger classes. Studies also have found that women fare as well or better than male counterparts when class sizes are smaller.
When the researchers analyzed student grades in the 2001-08 period, a clear gender gap existed for female students in large classes. On average, women earned grades that were .05 GPA points lower than those for men.
Though such a gender gap is relatively small, the professors wrote, it is significant when it comes to career opportunities in a field like law. Grades and clerkship placements are highly correlated – an increase in GPA from 3.6 to 3.65 is associated with a 7 percent increase in the probability of securing a federal appellate clerkship, they noted.
When the school adopted an "honors and pass" grading system in 2008, the gender gap disappeared across all courses, the study revealed. The Stanford Law School grade reform eliminated letter grades and replaced them with four levels of achievement – honors, pass, restricted credit, fail.
In 2009, the school introduced an even smaller mandatory class, which was "simulation-intensive," involving more student interaction and participation. In these classes, the gender gap was actually reversed.
Kelman said, "Smaller classes eliminated the gender gap that existed in large courses from 2001-08, and the gap disappeared after 2008 when we moved to a less-pressured honors/pass grading system from numerical grades, and actually is reversed in small simulation-based classes."
Ho said, "Our best sense, from collecting information from instructors, syllabi, final exams and course evaluations, is that small classes may facilitate certain forms of pedagogy that re-engage the broader student body."
Small classes, for instance, were more likely to include written feedback on practice exams, which can help address potential gender differences in levels of confidence.
"The smallest, simulation-intensive class led women to outperform men. These results are consistent with evidence from physics courses suggesting that pedagogy via interactive engagement exercises reduces gender differences," said Ho.
Though the results provide fodder for how professional schools can close gender gaps, much more work remains to be done to better understand exactly how class size and pedagogy affect students in different ways, Kelman noted.
"I do think schools should look at these results and experiment with whatever forms of small-group, problem-focused pedagogy that they are able to make available and study whether they get the sorts of effects we have gotten from small sections and simulation-based courses," he said.
Kelman said that the study also refutes a common assumption that performance is predetermined by "fixed" student traits.
"Some naïve reactions are that if women get poorer grades at law school, women must be less capable," he said.
Kelman added, "I think it's surprising to many – and perhaps a confirmation of a more optimistic view that I have – that much of the inequality we observe in the world is mutable, and that the structures that we sometimes take for granted may work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others."
Mark Kelman is the James C. Gaither Professor of Law and Vice Dean. Daniel Ho is professor of law and the Robert E. Paradise Faculty Fellow for Excellence in Teaching and Research.