Lindsey Davis, Worcester Polytechnic Institute – Projects Narrow Self-Efficacy Gaps for Women

Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Benefits of Project-Based Learning Week: Narrowing self-efficacy gaps for women is crucial.

Lindsey Davis, assistant professor of teaching in the humanities and arts department, looks into how projects can do so for female students.

I am a broadly trained interdisciplinary scholar of 19th and 20th American history and critical feminist studies. Along with Dr. Rebecca Moody, I serve as the co-founder and co-director of the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies (GSWS) program. My scholarly and pedagogical interests vary widely, ranging from reproductive justice to sexual harassment law to the intersection of feminist theory and STEM.

Projects Narrow Self-Efficacy Gaps for Women

Project-based learning has been documented as providing significant benefits to students when done well, and there is mounting evidence that women may benefit even more than men. In most cases, this has been assumed to be because women tend to be more community- and service-oriented—preferences that can be more readily leveraged through projects than lecture-based teaching. This narrative doubles down on traditional gender roles in society by messaging that women should be helpers and projects can help them be better helpers.

My colleagues and I wondered whether there might be explanations for project-based learning’s effectiveness with women that do not rely on contributing to this stereotypical narrative. We examined data from a survey of 2,236 alumni of a project-based STEM university. The sample was 39% women, offering a representative look at alumni who graduated between 1980 and 2019.

We found that women in the study attributed significantly greater gains in self-efficacy to their project work than men did. Closing the self-efficacy gap may be a particularly useful mechanism for retaining women in STEM education and careers. Researchers like Sarah Lubienski and colleagues have found that many girls lose confidence in their math skills, a requirement for most STEM fields, by the time they are in third grade, compared to boys’ tendency to indicate particularly strong math identities at the same time. These gaps in self-efficacy and identity emerge early despite a lack of differences in ability or performance. In our study, gains in self-efficacy amplified skills and helped alumni feel more prepared for their careers.

Our findings suggest that PBL can be an attractive pedagogy for recruiting and retaining women in STEM. To maximize this potential, faculty should pay particular attention to how they leverage projects to build students’ self-efficacy as they experience what it means to be a scientist or engineer.