Mixed-model assessments reduce the gender gap in student performance, finds new study JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

A study has found that the reason boys perform better than girls in certain science tests has little to do with them being better students and more to do with the way pupils handle stress and exam related anxiety.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota have found that performance gaps between male and female students increased or decreased based on the emphasis that teachers laid on the value of examinations. The research involved a year-long study of students in nine different introductory biology courses, notes a report by the Press Trust of India.

The results of the study, first published in the journal Plos One, showed that female students did not underperform in courses where exams and tests accounted for less than half of the total course grade. In another study, notes the report, researchers changed the curriculum in three different courses and placed lesser or higher value on tests that were considered to be high stakes like mid-terms and finals and observed the gender gap in exam performance.

"When the value of exams is changed, performance gaps increase or decrease accordingly," said Sehoya Cotner, associate professor at the University of Minnesota. So an exam's importance or the stress it puts on a woman student directly affects her performance.

One way to mend this difference in scoring between the sexes is to include exams and tests that are lower stakes like quizzes and assignments. This, says the report can significantly reduce any well-established performance gaps in science courses.

"This is not simply due to a 'watering down' of poor performance through the use of easy points, rather, on the exams themselves, women perform on par with men when the stakes are not so high," said Cotner.

The Active Learning Approach, noted the researchers, that moves from lectures and examinations to group work and collaborative efforts can also reduce the gender gap in performance of students. "As people transition to active learning, they tend to incorporate a diversity of low-stakes, formative assessments into their courses," Cotner said.

Many such gaps in student performance can be fixed using their findings, claim the researchers. Instructional choices and the very way instructors assess students can bring down several barriers that students face in their schools and colleges, they said.

"We conclude by challenging the student deficit model, and suggest a course deficit model as explanatory of these performance gaps, whereby the microclimate of the classroom can either raise or lower barriers to success for underrepresented groups in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)," she said.