Keywords: undergraduate, underrepresented minority, gender
Same Courses, Different Outcomes?
Variations in Confidence, Experience, and Preparation in
There is evidence in the literature that women have lower confidence in their skills and knowledge than men,
particularly in areas considered crucial for engineering, like math and science. This difference has been linked
to gender gaps in engineering enrollment and persistence. This study of engineering students extends research on
gender differences by examining how confidence with design interacts with academic preparation and the frequency
of design experiences in engineering coursework. Patterns of gender differences within the racial/ethnic majority
and minority groups are also examined.
Implications of Findings
|This study demonstrates that, at least for this sample and with respect to design, a
commonly held understanding about gender differences in confidence does not extend to URM men and women.
Overall, the analysis by gender and by majority (White/Caucasian and Asian American/Asian) vs. underrepresented
minority (URM) (African American/Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Mexican
American/Chicano, Puerto Rican, Other Latino) status undertaken in this study provides insights into students’
confidence to engage in engineering design activities, and their perceptions of the quantity and quality of design
education they receive in their coursework. While corroborating some findings from earlier studies, this analysis
has also uncovered longitudinal differences in the development of student attitudes during undergraduate study.
The analysis revealed that in both the second and fourth year, men generally indicated significantly higher levels
of confidence as well as course preparation for engaging in engineering design activities. The analysis also
showed that the gender differences in confidence and perceived academic preparation to engage in design are
primarily accounted for by the gender gap within the majority group. It was encouraging to see this gap diminish
toward the fourth year of engineering study. However, while the magnitude of the gender effect diminishes, the
general pattern of responses (men’s perceptions are slightly more positive compared to women’s) persists across
the majority group through the senior year.
Perhaps the finding of greatest impact is the localization of the gender gap within the majority students in this
study. This study demonstrates that, at least for this sample and with respect to design, a commonly held
understanding about gender differences in confidence does not extend to URM men and women. This has programmatic
implications in that the marginal outcomes of programs designed to improve students’ confidence to do design may
be greater for majority women than for URM women.
The absence of any significant difference in how frequently students perceive they are being exposed to design in
their coursework indicates that students in this sample all perceived they were receiving the same quantity of
design education. At the same time, men rated their courses more highly with respect to preparing them to do
design, indicating that there is a gender difference in the perception of the quality of design education students
in this sample were receiving. Possible explanations for this combination of findings include: the perceived
quality of design education may mirror differences in the courses and majors that students choose, with gendered
patterns arising in these differences that our analysis would not detect; gender differences in what students
understand course preparation to be; and that women in this sample perceived that their preparation to do design
came more from extracurricular activities and/or work experiences than from their engineering coursework.
Finally, the design experiences that men and women have in their engineering courses may be qualitatively
different. Both men and women are engaging in the same design activities in their courses, but perhaps in
different ways. This has implications for instructors who aim to provide all students with equal opportunities
to learn design. For example, instructors may want to pay greater attention to the individual roles that students
play in their design teams and encourage students to take on different roles from time to time.
Method and Background
This study is part of the Academic Pathways Study (APS), a research element of the NSF-funded Center for the
Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE), which focuses on students’ experiences as they move into, through,
and out of engineering education. APS is a longitudinal study of 160 undergraduate engineering students at four
diverse institutions (40 students at each institution). This analysis describes results from three related
questions that were part of a larger, web-based APS survey administered to participants over four consecutive
years. The comparisons reported here are based on data collected in the second and fourth years, in the spring
of 2005 and 2007.
This study explored confidence to do design with respect to gender and URM status. This line of inquiry
directly addresses differences between women and URMs as categories of students. Students’ beliefs about the
design education they received were also explored. This line of inquiry is important because it addresses a
potential source of confidence—the perceived quantity and quality of the coursework itself.
The specific research questions addressed are:
In the three survey questions asked of the students and intended to address the research questions above,
engineering students at four institutions were asked to (a) rate their confidence in the ability to engage in
each of eight engineering design activities, (b) indicate the frequency of engagement with these activities in
their courses, and (c) rate how well their courses are preparing them to engage in each activity.
- Does confidence to do design vary with the gender, URM status, and/or academic status of engineering students?
- Do students’ beliefs about the quantity of design they are exposed to in their engineering education coursework vary with gender, URM status, and/or class standing?
- Do students’ beliefs about how well their courses are preparing them to do design vary with gender, URM status, and/or class standing?
Demographic information was gathered from students in the first year of APS. Gender was determined based on
students’ self-reports. Reflecting the oversampling of women in the APS study, 37% of the participants in this
sample were women. Students were also identified in terms of what the team refers to as representation status
in this paper—that is, belonging to either the majority or the URM group. For a detailed discussion of methods
and analysis, please see the full paper at the link below.
What We Found
In terms of the “confidence to do design” question, men expressed higher confidence than women in both Years 2 and
4, although the gender gap had narrowed somewhat by Year 4. There were no statistically significant differences
between majority students and URM students in confidence to do design. At the same time, there were significant
differences in confidence between majority men and women, but there were no significant differences in confidence
between URM men and women. Therefore, the gender gap in confidence to do design is primarily accounted for by
For the question about students’ “perceived quantity of design education,” in both years, no significant
differences in perceived frequency of design experiences in coursework were found for the overall sample with
respect to gender or majority vs. URM status. Within the majority group, men consistently rated their frequency
of course experience with design higher compared to women, but the differences were not statistically significant.
Differences in ratings on two of the eight design activities approached significance in Year 2, yet this finding
appeared too weak to signal a trend toward consistently higher frequency ratings by men. There were no significant
gender differences in either year within the URM group.
Lastly, findings for the question about students’ “perceived quality of design education” were similar to the
findings for confidence in design. Differences in perceived preparation between majority men and women account
for the gender gap within the overall sample. At the same time, while no gender differences surfaced within the
URM group, a graphical comparison of average responses of men and women in Year 2 and Year 4 reveals a potential
emergence of a gender gap in perceived preparation within this group at a later stage of engineering study.
The explanatory power of these findings is limited by the significant overlap between representation status and
institutional affiliation. It is possible that other factors influence perceptions and attitudes regarding
self-confidence and preparation for design, including characteristics of individual institutions or programs.
The full paper, including figures and survey questions, can be viewed at the
ASEE Web site.
Authors: Andrew Morozov, Deborah Kilgore, Ken Yasuhara, and Cindy Atman
Source: Proceedings of 2008 American Society for Engineering Education Conference
For a printable pdf of this research brief, click here.
Brief created June 2008
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This material is based upon work supported by the
National Science Foundation under Grant
No. ESI-0227558. Any opinions, findings and conclusions
or recommendations expressed in this material are those
of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).