Alice Shih

Yale Law Study Insights on Classroom Dynamics

This is the second post in a series about Yale Law Women’s study, Yale Law School Faculty & Students Speak Up About Gender: Ten Years Later. One of three major data collection methods was observing 113 class sessions in 21 Yale Law courses for three one-week periods in September, October, and November 2011. The study recorded the gender of the professor, gender of the speaker, whether it was an initial or subsequent participation, and the origin of the contribution (called on, volunteered, offered a question or comment without professor prompt, interrupted professor or classmate). A total of 2,934 participation events were recorded. This classroom monitoring showed three major findings.

First, participation by women students continues to lag behind that of men. 58% of all participation events came from men, and 42% came from women. The 2012 study recorded a wider gender disparity than the 2002 study. In 2002, men spoke more often in 12 out of the 23 classes (52.2%). In a comparable period for 2012, men accounted for the majority student participation in 15 of the 21 monitored classes (71.4%). Overall, the improvement rate in the last decade was only 1.5%. Many faculty and students stated that the disparity is due to the fact that women students may be penalized socially for participating more frequently than average in class while men don’t face the same social criticism.

Second, classroom management styles can affect participation rates. The cold-call system provided the least gender-disparate result, with men accounting for 54.8% of cold-call responses. Even before knowing the results of data collection, many students suggested that professors either use more non-voluntary participation systems (i.e., cold-calling or panel system) or more conscientious classroom management to ensure that more voices are heard. 

Third, participation rates varied based on the type of class. When weighted for attendance, women do not make the majority of comments in any of the large classes monitored (excluding the first semester 1L courses). There is much less gender disparity in participation for classes with peak attendance under 25. In these seminar classes, women account for the majority of participation events in half of the courses observed. Interestingly, the result is flipped when only looking at 1L classes. Men account for a majority of participation in all monitored 1L seminars. However, in the large 1L sections, women account for over 50% of the participation events in 3 out of 5 observed classes. One possible explanation for this “1L flip” is that most 1L large courses implement a cold-call or panel system, which is the classroom method that has the least gender-disparate results.

But why does class participation matter at all? YLW acknowledges that equal participation in the classroom may not mean gender equality. Nor does it suggest that the current rate and type of participation by male students represents a gold standard; many students and professors suggested that optimal balance in the classroom requires adjustment on both ends. However, class participation is a proxy for student engagement and comfort in law school. Furthermore, based on professor interviews and the student survey (both of which will be explored in later posts), classroom participation is a major way that students get to know professors and lay the groundwork for lasting relationships that can lead to letters of recommendations and other professional benefits. 

Read the whole Yale Law Women report here

Thank you to the board of the Speak Up Study for their contributions to this post.

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