Nissen Defense

November, 2015

Thesis Defense

Candidate for the Doctor of Philosophy (in Physics) degree


Nationally, few undergraduates choose physics as a major, and among those who do, very few are women. One potential contributor to this problem is the impact that physics instruction seems to have on students’ self-efficacy, which is student’s thoughts and feelings about their capabilities to succeed as learners in physics. Self-efficacy plays an important role in student achievement in academics generally and in students pursuing STEM degrees. Conversely, research has shown that the self-efficacy of both men and women tends to be reduced after taking traditional and research-based physics courses. Moreover, self-efficacy tends to be reduced further for women than for men. However, it remains unclear whether the negative shifts in self-efficacy in physics are caused by physics instruction. It may be that the negative shift in self-efficacy reflects a broader trend in university education that has little to do with physics per se. I investigated this and other alternative explanations for negative shifts in self-efficacy in physics courses using an in-the-moment measurement technique called the Experience Sampling Method. The technique allowed me to collect students’ day-to-day feelings of self-efficacy, which I called states, and to compare students’ self-efficacy states in physics to those in other STEM courses. I found that students experienced much lower self-efficacy states in physics than in their other STEM courses. Moreover, this difference largely affected women who experienced physics, and only physics, with much lower self-efficacy states than men. Given that experiences are an established sources of self-efficacy beliefs and women also had much more negative shifts in their self-efficacy beliefs I  concluded that the experience of physics instruction was probably a causal factor in women’s reduced self-efficacy. Further analysis found that the gender difference in self-efficacy states was more than twice that predicted by students’ pre-course achievement, attitudes and beliefs. Thus I tentatively concluded that the negative impact on women’s self-efficacy resulted from inequities in the physics-learning environment rather than preexisting gender differences. I present evidence that the physics course I investigated was similar to other research-based physics courses and tentatively I concluded that physics instruction in general is detrimental to women’s self-efficacy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

12:00 noon

Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium