Gender and Participation in an Engineering Problem-Based Learning Environment

Main Article Content

Laura Hirshfield
Milo D. Koretsky


The use of problem-based learning (PBL) is gaining attention in the engineering classroom as a way to help students synthesize foundational knowledge and to better prepare students for practice. In this work, we study the discourse interactions between 27 student teams and two instructors in an engineering PBL environment to analyze how participation is distributed among team members, paying particular attention to the differences between male and female students. There were no statistically significant differences between the amount that male and female students spoke; however, stereotypical gender roles and traditional gendered behavior did manifest in the discussion. Also, regardless of the gender composition of the team, the amount of time that each member talked was usually unbalanced. Our findings lead to recommendations to instructors interacting with student teams and contribute to knowledge about team and gender interactions in PBL environments.

Article Details



Aarnio, M., Lindblom-Ylänne, S., Nieminen, J., & Pyörälä, E. (2014). How do tutors intervene when conflicts on knowledge arise in tutorial groups? Advances in Health Sciences Education, 19(3), 329–345.

Azer, S. A. (2001). Problem-based learning: A critical review of its educational objectives and the rationale for its use. Saudi Medical Journal, 22(4), 299–305.

Azer, S. A., & Azer, D. (2015). Group interaction in problem-based learning tutorials: A systematic review. European Journal of Dental Education, 19(4), 194–208.

Beddoes, K. D., Jesiek, B. K., & Borrego, M. (2010). Identifying opportunities for collaborations in international engineering education research on problem- and project- based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 4(2), 6–34.

Bednar, A. K., Cunningham, D., Duffy, T. M., & Perry, J. D. (1992). Theory into practice: How do we link. In T. M. Duffy & D. H. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 17–34). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bell, A. E., Spencer, S. J., Iserman, E., & Logel, C. E. R. (2003). Stereotype threat and women’s performance in engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 92(4), 307–312.

Cadaret, M. C., Hartung, P. J., Subich, L. M., & Weigold, I. K. (2017). Stereotype threat as a barrier to women entering engineering careers. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 99, 40–51.

Chi, M. T. H. (2012). Quantifying qualitative analyses of verbal data: A practical guide. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(3), 271–315.

Coates, J. (2015). Women, men and language: A sociolinguistic account of gender differences in language. New York: Routledge.

Conway, J. F., & Little, P. J. (2001). Adopting PBL as the preferred institutional approach to teaching and learning: Considerations and challenges. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 11(2000), 11–26.

Cunningham, D., & Duffy, T. (1996). Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 170–198). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dasgupta, N., & Stout, J. G. (2014). Girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics : STEM- ing the tide and broadening participation in STEM careers. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 21–29.

Donath, L., Spray, R., Thompson, N. S., Alford, E. M., Craig, N., & Matthews, M. A. (2005). Characterizing discourse among undergraduate researchers in an inquiry-based community of practice. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(4), 403–417.

Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (1991). Gender and the emergence of leaders: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(5), 685–710.

Finelli, C. J., Bergom, I., & Mesa, V. (2010). Student teams in the engineering classroom and beyond: Setting up students for success. CRLT Occasional Paper No. 29 (12 pp.), University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Galdi, S., Cadinu, M., & Tomasetto, C. (2014). The roots of stereotype threat: When automatic associations disrupt girls’ math performance. Child Development, 85(1), 250–263.

Gilbuena, D. M., Sherrett, B. U., Gummer, E. S., & Kore- tsky, M. D. (2011, July). Understanding feedback in an authentic, ill-structured project through discourse analy- sis: Interaction between student and instructor objectives. Paper presented at the Research in Engineering Education Symposium, Madrid, Spain.

Gilbuena, D. M., Sherrett, B. U., & Koretsky, M. (2011, June). Episodes as a discourse analysis framework to examine feedback in an industrially-situated virtual laboratory project. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education. Vancouver, BC.

Gilkison, A. (2003). Techniques used by “expert” and “non-expert” tutors to facilitate problem-based learning tutorials in an undergraduate medical curriculum. Medical Education, 37(1), 6–14.

Guerra, A., & Holgaard, J. E. (2016). Enhancing critical thinking in a PBL environment. International Journal of Engineering Education, 32(1, B, SI), 424–437.

Henry, H. R., Tawfik, A. A., Jonassen, D. H., Winholtz, R. A., & Khanna, S. (2012). “I know this is supposed to be more like the real world, but . . .”: Student perceptions of a PBL implementation in an undergraduate materials science course. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 6(1), 3–27.

Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Washington, DC.

Hirshfield, L., Whinnery, J., Gilbuena, D. M., & Koretsky, M. D. (2014). A study of feedback provided to student teams engaged in open-ended projects. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, Indianapolis, IN.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235–266.

Horn, I. S. (2005). Learning on the job: A situated account of teacher learning in high school mathematics departments. Cognition and Instruction, 23(2), 207–236.

Horn, I. S. (2012). Mathematical competence and status: What “being smart” means. Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Imafuku, R., Kataoka, R., Mayahara, M., Suzuki, H., & Saiki, T. (2014). Students ’ experiences in interdisciplinary problem- based learning: A discourse analysis of group interaction. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 8(2), 3–13.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). Learning together and alone: Cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D. W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., & Nelson, D. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 89(1), 47–62.

Jolly, H., Brodie, L., & Jolly, L. (2011, July). Evaluating tutor training for online PBL teamwork courses in first year engineering. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Research in Engineering Education Symposium, Madrid, Spain.

Jones, B. D., Epler, C. M., Mokri, P., Bryant, L. H., & Paretti, M. C. (2013). The effects of a collaborative problem-based learning experience on students’ motivation in engineer- ing capstone courses. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 7(2), 5–16.

Koretsky, M. D., Amatore, D., Barnes, C., & Kimura, S. (2008). Enhancement of student learning in experimental design using a virtual laboratory. IEEE Transactions on Education, 51(1), 76–85.

Koretsky, M. D., Kelly, C., & Gummer, E. (2011). Student perceptions of learning in the laboratory: Comparison of industrially situated virtual laboratories to capstone phys- ical laboratories. Journal of Engineering Education, 100(3), 540–573.

Koretsky, M. D., Nolen, S. B., Tierney, G., & Wetzstein, L. (2015, July). Productive disciplinary engagement in design tasks. Paper presented at the Research in Engineering Education Symposium, Dublin, Ireland.

Laeser, M., Moskal, B. M., Knecht, R., & Lasich, D. (2003). Engineering design: Examining the impact of gender and the team’s gender composition. Journal of Engineering Education, 92(1), 49–56.

Leaper, C., & Ayres, M. M. (2007). A meta-analytic review of gender variations in adults’ language use: Talkativeness, affiliative speech, and assertive speech. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 328–63.

Linder, B., Somerville, M., Eris, O., & Tatar, N. (2010, October). Work in progress—Taking one for the team: Goal orientation and gender-correlated task division. Paper presented at the annual meeting of Frontiers in Education, Rapid City, SD.

Lotan, R. A. (2003). Group-worthy tasks. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 72–75.

Masek, A. (2016). An appropriate technique of facilitation using students’ participation level measurement in the PBL environment. International Journal of Engineering Education, 32(1), 402–408.

Matusovich, H. M., Streveler, R. A., & Miller, R. L. (2010). Why do students choose engineering? A qualitative, longitudinal investigation of students’ motivational values. Journal of Engineering Education, 99(4), 289–303.

Meadows, L. A., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2013). The influence of gender stereotypes on role adoption in student teams. Paper presented at the annual meeting of American Society for Engineering Education, Atlanta, GA.

Mills, J. E., & Treagust, D. F. (2003). Engineering education—Is problem-based or project-based learning the answer? Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 3(2), P2–16.

Mitchell, J. E., Smith, J., & Kenyon, A. J. (2005). It’s not for lazy students like me. . . International Journal of Electrical Engineering Education, 42(1), 41–51.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(41), 16474–16479.

National Science Foundation, & National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2015). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015 Digest. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Nolen, S. B., Hirshfield, L., & Koretsky, M. D. (2014, June). Engagement, teamwork, and transfer: A comparison of physical laboratories and virtual laboratories. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Atlanta, GA.

Nosek, B. A., Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2002). Math = male, me = female, therefore math not = me. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 44–59.

Okudan, G. E., & Bilén, S. G. (2003, June). Effect of gender orientation of the design task on team performance: A preliminary study. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, Nashville, TN.

Okudan, G. E., Horner, D., Bogue, B., & Devon, R. (2002, June). An investigation of gender composition on integrated project team performance: Part III. Paper pre- sented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, Montreal, Canada.

Papinczak, T., Tunny, T., & Young, L. (2009). Conducting the symphony: A qualitative study of facilitation in problem-based learning tutorials. Medical Education, 43(4), 377–383.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223–231.

Purzer, S. (2011). The relationship between team discourse, self-efficacy and individual achievement: A sequential mixed-methods study. Journal of Engineering Education, 100(4), 655–679.

Rudman, L. A., Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Nauts, S. (2012). Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motivates prejudice against female leaders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 165–179.

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1), 9–20.

Schmidt, H. G. (1983). Problem-based learning: Rationale and description. Medical Education, 17, 11–16.

Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (2000). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences (12th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Smeding, A. (2012). Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): An investigation of their implicit gender stereotypes and stereotypes’ connectedness to math performance. Sex Roles, 67(11–12), 617–629.

Smith, K. A., & Sheppard, S. D. (2005). Pedagogies of engagement: Classroom-based practices. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 87–101.

Smyth, F. L., & Nosek, B. A. (2015). On the gender-science stereotypes held by scientists: Explicit accord with gender-ratios, implicit accord with scientific identity. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(415), P1–19.

Terenzini, P. T., Cabrera, A. F., Colbeck, C. L., Parente, J. M., & Bjorklund, S. A. (2001). Collaborative learning vs. lecture/discussion: Students’ reported learning gains*. Journal of Engineering Education, 90(1), 123–130.

van Dijk, T. A. (1982). Episodes as units of discourse analysis. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Analyzing Discourse: Text and Talk (pp. 177–195). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Vardi, I., & Ciccarelli, M. (2008). Overcoming problems in problem-based learning: A trial of strategies in an undergraduate unit. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(4), 345–354.

Williams, M. J., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2016). The subtle suspension of backlash: A meta-analysis of penalties for women’s implicit and explicit dominance behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 165–97.

Wolfe, J., Powell, B. A., Schlisserman, S., & Kirshon, A. (2016). Teamwork in engineering undergraduate classes: What problems do students experience? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, New Orleans, LA.

Woods, D. R. (1983). Introducing explicit training in problem solving into our courses. Higher Education Research and Development, 2(1), 79–106.

Woods, D. R. (1994). Problem-based learning: How to gain the most from PBL. Waterdown, Ontario: Donald R. Woods.

Woodward-Kron, R., & Remedios, L. (2007). Classroom discourse in problem-based learning classrooms in the health sciences. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 30(1), 1–18.

Zhou, C., Kolmos, A., & Nielsen, J. D. (2012). A problem and project-based learning (PBL) approach to motivate group creativity in engineering education. International Journal of Engineering Education, 28(1), 3–16.

Zimmermann, D. H., & West, C. (1996). Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science Series, 4, 211–236.