04 January 2012

Girls do better in single-sex classes

Female students do significantly better if they are taught in single-sex classes, according to new research from the University of Essex.

Last year first-year students at the university were divided into three groups for introductory courses in economics – some all-girls, some all-boys and some mixed. And while there was no effect on the exam scores of the boys’ groups and the mixed groups, the girls’ groups saw a 7.5 per cent boost in their average marks.

A major part of that improvement was linked to attendance – girls were much more likely to turn up for classes if they were placed in single-sex groups, according to the researchers, Dr Patrick Nolen and Professor Alison Booth. On average, girls in single-sex groups attended 71 per cent of the compulsory classes, while girls in mixed groups attended just 63 per cent. That explained about half the difference between their scores and those of girls in mixed groups.

However, the experiment revealed that while single-sex classes for girls led to better exam scores, there was no significant effect on their coursework marks.

The research, carried out on around 800 economics and business studies students who took the introductory courses, was designed to build upon the findings of earlier experiments with school-age pupils which showed girls were more willing to take risks and to be competitive when placed in single-sex groups.

Dr Nolen, of the university's Department of Economics, said women and girls who were risk-averse might be less likely to compete for promotion at work in the future, and that could affect their chances of success: "I would like to see policy makers think about this. We should be investigating it and intervening pre-market in the environment in which students learn," he said.

The university students were asked if they were willing to take part in an experiment, but were not given details of the research. Corina Musat, aged 20, said that when she was placed in an all-girls’ group she simply assumed there were more girls than boys on the course. "I think the atmosphere was more friendly and we bonded because we were all girls," she said.

Emilia Matei, also aged 20, said: "I think it was the best class I had last year. I don't know whether it was because it was a single-sex class or whether it was the teaching. In the all-girls' class, you didn't have to have that much courage to go to the blackboard and answer the question."

The earlier experiments on which this research was based were conducted with 260 teenagers from two girls’ schools, two boys’ schools and four co-educational schools in Suffolk and Essex. They showed girls who went to single-sex schools were more competitive, even when they were in a mixed-sex environment.

The researchers concluded that while innate differences between girls and boys played a role, nurture and environment could explain more than half the difference in competitive behaviour and risk choices between boys and girls. Girls from single-sex schools took more risky, competitive options when playing a series of games in which they had to solve maze puzzles – even if they were placed in mixed-sex groups for the exercise.

The earlier project was reported in the Economic Journal and Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. That report concluded: "This finding is relevant to the policy debate on whether or not single-sex classes within co-ed schools could be a useful way forward."

The papers can be viewed at:

For further information please contact Fran Abrams at: fabrams@essex.ac.uk

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