Gender Differences In Learning Styles

Men and women are different but do these differences extend to learning styles? Although several researchers have started to compile a database to clearly identify the female learning experience, there is not enough data yet to definitively answer questions comparing women's and men's learning styles. Learning style is defined here as an "individual's characteristic ways of processing information, feeling, and behaving in learning situations"

Girls and boys differ fundamentally in the learning style they feel most comfortable with. These differences derive both from basic physiological differences, such as differences in the ability to hear, and from differences in higher-level cortical functions.

Let's begin with the innate difference in the ability to hear. Suppose you test the hearing of a seven-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy, in a soundproof booth with high-quality equipment. Scientists who do this work have found that the girl can hear sounds much softer than the faintest sounds audible to the boy. Girls have a sense of hearing which is two to four times better than boys (depending on the frequency tested). This difference is present as early as children can be reliably tested. Every systematic evaluation of children's hearing has confirmed that girls hear significantly better than boys. The first such evaluation was published by psychologist John F. Corso over 40 years ago.

That basic difference in the ability to hear has major implications for best practices for teaching girls vs. teaching boys. If you have a classroom with a female teacher who is speaking in a tone of voice which seems normal to the teacher, it's a good bet that the boys at the back of the classroom aren't paying much attention, in part because they can barely hear what she's saying. Conversely, if you have a male teacher speaking in a tone of voice which seems normal to him, a girl in the front row may feel that the teacher is practically yelling at her. Remember that she is experiencing a sound four times louder than what the male teacher is experiencing. The simplest way to accommodate these differences in a coed classroom is to put all the boys in the front and the girls in the back -- just the opposite of the usual seating pattern that the children themselves will choose. In more "modern" classroom arrangements which don't have a "front" -- e.g. all the seats arranged in a circle -- there is no solution to this problem for the coed classroom. If you want a classroom with seats arranged in small groups or in a circle, you need a single-sex classroom (unless you choose simply to ignore the difference in hearing acuity).

That basic difference in the ability to hear has major implications for best practices for teaching girls vs. teaching boys. If you have a classroom with a female teacher who is speaking in a tone of voice which seems normal to the teacher, it's a good bet that the boys at the back of the classroom aren't paying much attention, in part because they can barely hear what she's saying. Conversely, if you have a male teacher speaking in a tone of voice which seems normal to him, a girl in the front row may feel that the teacher is practically yelling at her. Remember that she is experiencing a sound four times louder than what the male teacher is experiencing. The simplest way to accommodate these differences in a coed classroom is to put all the boys in the front and the girls in the back -- just the opposite of the usual seating pattern that the children themselves will choose. In more "modern" classroom arrangements which don't have a "front" -- e.g. all the seats arranged in a circle -- there is no solution to this problem for the coed classroom. If you want a classroom with seats arranged in small groups or in a circle, you need a single-sex classroom (unless you choose simply to ignore the difference in hearing acuity).

The next level of difference has to do with gender-specific personality traits which affect how children learn. First, a word about gender-specific personality traits. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was fashionable to assume that gender differences in personality were "culturally constructed." Back then, psychologists thought that if we raised children differently if we raised Johnny to play with dolls and Sally to play with trucks -- then many of these gender differences would vanish. However, cross-cultural studies over the past 30 years have provided little support for this hypothesis. On the contrary, a recent report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that gender differences in personality were remarkably robust across all cultures studied, including China, sub-Saharan Africa, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Peru, the United States, and Europe (including specific studies in Croatia, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Yugoslavia and western Russia). "Contrary to predictions from the social role model, gender differences were most pronounced in European and American cultures in which traditional sex roles are minimized," the authors concluded.

Educational psychologists have consistently found that girls tend to have higher standards in the classroom, and evaluate their own performance more critically. Girls also outperform boys in school (as measured by students' grades), in all subjects and in all age groups.

Because girls do better in school (as measured by report card grades), one might imagine that girls would be more self-confident about their academic abilities and have higher academic self-esteem. But that's not the case. Paradoxically, girls are more likely to be excessively critical in evaluating their own academic performance. Conversely, boys tend to have unrealistically high estimates of their own academic abilities and accomplishments.

Educational psychologists have found fundamental differences in the factors motivating girls vs. factors motivating boys. Researchers have consistently found that "girls are more concerned than boys are with pleasing adults, such as parents and teachers" (Pomerantz, Altermatt, & Saxon, 2002, p. 397). Most boys, on the other hand, will be less motivated to study unless the material itself interests them.

Girls and boys experience academic difficulties very differently. Here are the findings of Eva Pomerantz, Ellen Alterman, and Jill Saxon (2002, p. 402):

"Girls generalize the meaning of their failures because they interpret them as indicating that they have disappointed adults, and thus they are of little worth. Boys, in contrast, appear to see their failures as relevant only to the specific subject area in which they have failed; this may be due to their relative lack of concern with pleasing adults. In addition, because girls view evaluative feedback as diagnostic of their abilities, failure may lead them to incorporate this information into their more general view of themselves. Boys, in contrast, may be relatively protected from such generalization because they see such feedback as limited in its diagnosticity."

Girls tend to look on the teacher as an ally. Given a little encouragement, they will welcome the teacher's help. A girl-friendly classroom is a safe, comfortable, welcoming place. Forget hard plastic chairs: put in a sofa and some comfortable bean bags. Let the girls address their teacher by her (or his) first name.

Context enhances learning for most girls, but often just bores the boys. The choir director of the National Cathedral School for Girls and the St. Alban's School for Boys told that when he's teaching the high school girls a new song, he'll start by sharing a story about why the composer wrote this piece, who it was written for, or maybe how the choir director himself felt 20 years ago when he goofed the solo part. "Giving the girls some context, telling them a story about the piece, gets them interested. The boys are just the opposite," he said. "If you start talking like that with the boys, they'll start looking at their watches, they'll start getting restless. Then one of them will say, ‘Can we please just get on with it already? Can we please just learn the song already?'"

Confrontation works well with most boys, although this technique is seldom taught in today's schools of education. Get in their face. Raise your voice. Stand right in front of your student, nose-to-nose, and say to him: "How do you know that, Mr. Miller? Prove it to me!" This kind of direct challenge will motivate boys to work harder and to be prepared. Remember that boys' hearing is only about half as acute as girls' hearing. A well-run boys' classroom is LOUD compared with a girls' classroom. Avoid sofas or soft chairs: boys will go to sleep. Keep the class LOUD and keep the class MOVING. In particular, the teacher should be moving at all times. A class in which the teacher sits at the front of the class and talks in a soft voice is a class in which at least two-thirds of the boys will have tuned out. The boy should never know where the teacher will be 20 seconds from now. Keep them guessing.

Small-group learning works well for girls. Girls will naturally break up in groups of three and four to work on problems. Let them. If you're assigning class presentations, let two girls give a joint presentation. The format of one student giving a presentation to an entire class doesn't work as well (for girls) as two students giving a joint presentation to a smaller group.

Formal terms of address work well for boys. Boys' classes work best when teachers and students address each other as "Mr." That kind of formality enhances class discipline. If you treat boys like men, they are more likely to act like men.

Finally based on the theoretical work of Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986), I have attempted to advance the database by testing the hypothesis that men and women have different learning styles. Prompted by two main concerns, Belenky et al. (1986) examined women's ways of knowing based on the work of Gilligan and Perry. The first concern was that "conceptions of knowledge and truth that are accepted and articulated today have been shaped throughout history by the male-dominated majority culture" (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 5). Modes of learning that are common, if not specific, to women have been devalued. In other words, rationalism and objectivity are valued over intuitive, personal knowledge. The authors note that this masculine bias is probably present in most traditional educational curricula and pedagogical standards. The second main concern was that "developmental theory has established men's experience and competence as a baseline against which both men's and women's development is then judged, often to the detriment or misreading of women" (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 7). This bias is demonstrated with clarity in the models of intellectual development. Even in studies of women's intellectual development, the modes of learning cultivated and valued by men are studied rather than ways of knowing more common to and highly developed in women (Belenky et al., 1986).

Belenky et al. (1986) interviewed 135 women about "their experience and problems as learners and knowers as well as . . . their past histories for changing concepts of the self and relationships with others" (p. 11). The subjects came from a variety of educational backgrounds including formal education settings and parenting classes, which allowed the researchers to compare extensively educated and essentially uneducated women. From the women's responses, the authors identified five ways of knowing, including silence, received knowledge, subjective knowledge, procedural knowledge, and constructed knowledge. They also developed coding categories for the women's responses called Educational Dialectics, which illustrate opposite modes of thought or learning styles such as rational-intuitive. The researchers suspected that "in women one mode often predominates whereas conventional educational practice favors the other mode" (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 16).

Also investigating learning style variance, Kolb (1976) developed a Learning Style Inventory (LSI) to describe the ways people learn and how they deal with ideas and situations. The LSI is based on a Cartesian coordinate consisting of active experimentation (doing) versus reflective observation (watching) on the x-axis, and concrete experience (feeling) versus abstract conceptualization (thinking) on the y-axis. This coordinate system yields four learning styles: Accommodator, Diverger, Converger, and Assimilator. Accommodators are best at learning from "hands on" experience (doing and feeling); Divergers excel in using imagination and brainstorming, combining concrete experience and reflective observation (feeling and watching). Convergers' dominant learning abilities are focused on finding practical uses for ideas and theories (doing and thinking). Assimilators are most adept at logically organizing and analyzing information, building and testing theories, and designing experiments.

It follows that, of the four learning styles, Assimilators are best suited to academic careers (Kolb, 1985). Since Assimilators are most likely to be conducting and shaping the academic world, this suggests that the Assimilator learning style most accurately reflects traditional education. This conclusion concurs with the belief of Belenky et al. (1986) that traditional education primarily values rationalism and objectivity. Current data suggest that, on the average, men and women score differently on the Learning Style Inventory. Women tend to score higher on the Concrete Experience orientation while men tend toward Abstract Conceptualization. No consistent differences between men and women have been identified on the active/reflective dimension.

The hypothesis of the existence of a gender difference in learning styles was tested via a survey which consisted of four basic parts: demographic information, the Kolb Learning Style Inventory, twelve Educational Dialectic questions, and a subjective question regarding participant's educational experiences.

Chi-square analyses were conducted on the Learning Style Inventory and the Educational Dialectics examining gender differences in responses. For the subjective question, a content analysis was conducted to categorize these responses. To protect against gender bias the analysis was conducted using a double blind method. These responses were categorized into four groups regarding whether the subject's learning style "fit" her/his educational experience(s). The four categories are: Fit, Didn't Fit, Response Unclear, and No Response. Each response was categorized based on unanimous agreement among four raters.

Learning Style Inventory

The Learning Style of 30% (n = 21) of all subjects and of 48% (n = 12) of males was the Assimilator style (see Table II). Women's scores were more evenly distributed across the learning style categories, with Diverger (n = 13) and Converger (n = 13) being the greatest in number. Men's Diverger category is notably small with 8% (n = 2). Chi-square analysis showed a significant difference between males and females on learning styles (p = .0538).

Educational Dialectics

Chi-square analysis produced significant results (p = .0118) with the comparison of gender and Educational Dialectic question 6 (Is "concern for self" vs. "concern for others" an issue in your educational decision making?). Sixty-seven percent of females answered "yes" while 64% of males answered "no."

Subjective Question

Although not statistically significant, the responses to this question indicated that more males (23%, n = 6) felt their education did fit with their learning style. Conversely, the results indicated that more females (22%, n = 10) felt that traditional education did not fit with their learning style. Females seemed to have more difficulty than males in answering this question, as indicated by the gender breakdown of responses in the "Response Unclear" category (42% female, n = 19; 30% male, n = 8). A response was deemed "unclear" when the raters were not unanimous.

Conclusion

The present research demonstrates that there is a significant difference in learning styles between the genders. Significance was also realized in the issue of "concern for others" being primarily a female response as opposed to the primarily male response of "concern for self."

The original hypothesis, suggested by Belenky et al. (1986), is definitely supported. Traditional educational settings may not be the best learning environment for females. The learning style that seems to fit women the least is the Assimilator and our study shows this learning style best fits men. The Assimilator learning style most accurately reflects traditional education and, in this study, more males chose the Assimilator style than women.

Traditional education is directed towards and appeals more to males since it is primarily abstract and reflective. Females learn better in hands-on and practical settings, emphasizing the realm of the affective and doing. Based on the results of this study, if females are watching and feeling or doing and thinking, they learn best. If males are thinking and watching, they learn best.

The subjective question showed that females generally felt that they did not fit in with traditional education learning styles or were unable to give a clear response to that question. A female respondent to the subjective question commented, "I felt like I was talked at; no transfer of knowledge, really, just words without meaning spoken. I never saw much practical application for the words/topics being discussed." Men generally did find congruence in their learning style and their formal education. A male respondent said, "I believe my learning style of using logical steps to break down things and analyze them helped me in my studies of computer science and systems analysis."

The results of this study, which indicate that there are differences in learning styles between the genders prompt further research in this area. Specifically, research studies could examine the effect of a course designed to cater to the Diverger/Converger learning style instead of the traditional male-accommodating style. How would men learn in a course taught to this primarily feminine style? How would men have to accommodate their learning style in this situation and how would they rate such a course? Courses designed to accommodate all four learning styles would be of interest to teacher training institutions.

More by this Author

  • Why should we save polar bear?
    15

    The polar bear, or “Nanuuq,” as the Eskimos call it, lives on the arctic ice cap, and spends most of its time in coastal areas. Polar bears are widely dispersed in Canada, extending from the northern arctic...

  • Colonial American History
    5

    Colonial American History The colonial era in America and the Caribbean began in the late 15th century with the first voyages of discovery to the New World and ended in the 19th century with successful movements for...

  • SWOT and PEST Analysis of McDonalds
    1

    Despite McDonalds being a multinational food outlet, it is important to analyzed the outlet to evaluate its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and this can be done by conducting SWOT analysis


Comments 3 comments

waheedmp1 7 years ago

i like it


morrisonspeaks profile image

morrisonspeaks 7 years ago

I like your thinking and your approach! Thanks for sharing.

Here's my take on this topic :)

http://hubpages.com/education/Compounding-Wealth


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

Very good hub. I never heard that girl's hearing was better than boy's. Maybe junior is not deliberatly ignoring his parent or other adult.

I have heard that boys learn more through physical contact, touching, runing, climbing. Girls learn more by passive input, reading, drawing, listening to the teacher give a lesson. Classrooms are generally designed for the "Girl" style of learning. Also most teachers in the earlier grades are Females. Thus the frustration that leads to boys being "Medicaded" to keep them docile.

That is a hub all by itself.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working