How Do You Retain Women Through Inclusive Pedagogy?

Student ability is important, but learning occurs within social environments and it is mediated by the communication norms of those environments. As NCWIT Social Science Network member Margaret Eisenhart and colleague Elizabeth Finkel wrote, learning develops when one “changes from novice to expert, newcomer to old-timer, or naïve to mature practitioners in a social practice such as the activities of a science curriculum or an engineering workplace” (p. 8).

Decreased confidence among women is a frequently recurring theme in STEM and IT research. Women are more likely than men to lose confidence in their ability to complete the tasks required for earning acceptable grades, even when their performance is equal to males’. This loss of confidence can result from the suggestion that women do not fit the image of “scientist” or “engineer.” We know that students and professors maintain mental models of the types of people who belong and what they can or should contribute. For example, two studies in engineering showed that despite entering their engineering majors with stronger academic preparation than their male peers, women were often considered less capable academically, or even described as “not the real engineering type.” Not surprisingly, women in these studies eventually came to view themselves in the same way, resulting in either dropping out or practicing on the margins in their project groups. With repeated (and often subtle) messages that one is not like the other students — not as smart, not interested in the same activities, not a “real” computing major — it becomes difficult to imagine oneself developing the identity of a computer scientist.

Classroom opportunities for holding intellectual conversations can help to alleviate the loss of confidence among women, while allowing them to develop support groups and networks of intellectual support. Hearing other students talk about what they are learning gives women better information for making judgments about whether they in fact do belong there. And, other students hearing women’s intellectual talk forces them to recognize that women are competent contributors to the intellectual enterprise.



Both the physical and the social aspects of a learning environment influence student participation and satisfaction, as well as learning itself. For example, when students’ seats are bolted to the floor facing a lectern, student collaboration can be inhibited.

An important aspect of a classroom learning environment is the communication climate. When instruction is mainly lecture-based with few or no opportunities for interaction, students have little expectation that they will, can, or should learn from each other. Under these circumstances students may resist different teaching methods such as student-led discussion or small group-work. Studies show, however, that with effective teaching, small group-discussion enables students to effectively internalize and apply interpretive procedures. Hearing other students talk about the concepts being taught has many benefits. Especially important in this process are the supportive relationships and the network of learning partners students can develop. So, despite the years of socialization and expectations that students (and instructors) bring with them, new routines can quickly develop into new norms.


  • Barker, L. J., Garvin-Doxas, K., & Jackson, M. J. (2002). Defensive climate in the computer science classroom. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 34(1), 94-99. ACM, New York, NY. doi:10.1145/1060071.1060073.
  • Eisenhart, M. & Finkel, E. (1998). Women’s science: Learning and succeeding from the margins. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hiemstra, R. (1991). Aspects of effective learning environments. In R. Hiemstra (Ed.), New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education (pp. 5-12). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon