Cognitive difficulty and format of exams predicts gender and socioeconomic gaps in exam performance of students in introductory biology courses

Christian D. Wright, Sarah L. Eddy, Mary Pat Wenderoth, Elizabeth Abshire, Margaret Blankenbiller, Sara Brownell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

21 Scopus citations

Abstract

Recent reform efforts in undergraduate biology have recommended transforming course exams to test at more cognitively challenging levels, which may mean including more cognitively challenging and more constructed-response questions on assessments. However, changing the characteristics of exams could result in bias against historically underserved groups. In this study, we examined whether and to what extent the characteristics of instructor-generated tests impact the exam performance of male and female and middle/high- and low-socioeconomic status (SES) students enrolled in introductory biology courses. We collected exam scores for 4810 students from 87 unique exams taken across 3 yr of the introductory biology series at a large research university. We determined the median Bloom’s level and the percentage of constructed-response questions for each exam. Despite controlling for prior academic ability in our models, we found that males and middle/high-SES students were disproportionately favored as the Bloom’s level of exams increased. Additionally, middle/high-SES students were favored as the proportion of constructed-response questions on exams increased. Given that we controlled for prior academic ability, our findings do not likely reflect differences in academic ability level. We discuss possible explanations for our findings and how they might impact how we assess our students.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberar23
JournalCBE life sciences education
Volume15
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)

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