Persistent gender gaps in first-year physics assessment questions


  • David J. Low UNSW Canberra
  • Kate F. Wilson UNSW Canberra


In a review of six years of first-year physics assessment results, we have identified a number of individual questions which display a persistent gender gap in performance: the facility displayed by males on these questions is consistently higher than that displayed by females. We have looked for patterns in student answers to these questions by gender and overall performance, and identified reasons why these questions might be more challenging for females. Our results indicate that the presentation and wording of questions can result in undesirable cueing, particularly when words and concepts such as ‘positive’ need to be uncoupled from their near-synonyms (such as ‘upwards’ and ‘increasing’) to be correctly applied in a physics context. The observations presented here suggest that this issue is more significant for females than it is for males. Since individual questions may contribute disproportionately to any overall gender gap in assessment, we encourage other educators to review their own historical records and assessment questions.

Author Biographies

David J. Low, UNSW Canberra

School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences

Kate F. Wilson, UNSW Canberra

School of Engineering and Information Technology