Girls in Physics: The Fear of Problem-Solving

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About Me

Here are some facts about me:

  • I am a woman
  • I am a physicist
  • I am a teacher
  • I have worked in industry (one actuarial firm and two engineering firms)
  • I was a teenage girl (not that long ago

I tick every box for understanding the problem of girls shying away from studying STEM subjects. Yet it amazes me that I cannot come up with a simple answer on why girls lack self confidence in Maths and Physics; a problem highlighted by the Guardian newspaper recently (Click Here to Read the Article).

I started my teaching career at Whitgift School: an all boys independent day school in South Croydon. I loved working there. The students had a sense of adventure and I honed my craft with large classes of students happily exploring their way through school level Physics. Within two years, I had been promoted to the Head of Physics at Fettes College (independent, mixed boarding school) and quickly realised that the introduction of girls meant that I would have to change my teaching methods and structure the departmental resources accordingly.

Learning Styles

“Gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude, but rather from students’ attitudes towards learning and their behaviour in school”OECD

The difference in learning styles generally becomes clear when setting practical work to post-16 students.

Boys like to be given a set of equipment and told to get on with it. They will investigate, invent and learn through trial and error. Girls are more insecure with the idea of venturing into the unknown. They like a clear set of instructions, an indication of conclusion should be drawn and a full set of revision notes at the end, including what must be memorised for the exam.

Of course, I am generalising, but it does tend to reign true.

Learn to Love Problem-Solving

STEM subjects rely on an ability to problem solve. Girls lack confidence with problem-solving, despite being conscientious, capable and bright. In my experience, girls seem to feel a more immediate pressure of gaining good exam results. Hard facts and memorising are much more appealing because they can be in control of how well they can learn it. Problem-solving is just too much of a risk.

I didn’t really love Physics until my final year of studying Astrophysics at Edinburgh University, when I discovered that using past exam papers made revising a lot easier! I had previously just memorised facts and memorised methods of solving routine problems. Suddenly, I was faced with thousands of little problems to solve and I began to enjoy the challenge.

I have spent ages scouring various academic papers and websites, trying to find practical tips on engaging girls in physics. I’ve tried them all out!

“I’ve written a white paper with the common factors that put girls off continuing physics in the sixth form and have suggested loads of easy to implement tips that should help”Sally Weatherly


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Sally is the Guzled founder and, more importantly, a physics teacher. She led a large and vibrant department for 7 years, after training to teach in London. She is an IB Physics textbook author, online tutor, Trustee for Dynamic Earth and an IoP Teacher Network Co-ordinator.