If only Flash Gordon were Steady Eddie

February 8, 2002

Is the reason that women are outperforming men academically really due to the switch away from exams to coursework? Ruth Woodfield looks at the evidence.

When Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, suggested last year that the reason why women undergraduates were starting to outperform men was the growing popularity of coursework at the expense of exams, I saw red.

Pirie argued that exams lend themselves to risk-taking and flair, a male approach to studying and performing. In shifting the emphasis to coursework, our society was feminising entry qualifications to top positions and sacrificing the "flash and fire of entrepreneurial zeal" at the altar of the "duller expectations of systematic and steady progress".

Despite his protestations that one gender's presumed approach was not being judged as better than another, the comments gave the impression that females were plodding and mediocre, and that coursework was an inferior test of academic ability.

Since 1999, my colleague Sarah Earl-Novell and I have been collecting student achievement data on an unpopular social science course, "Concepts, methods and values". This course is difficult, demands abstract analytical skills and its assessment does little to reward the allegedly "feminine" skills of empathy and contextualisation. Assessment consisted of two 2,000-word coursework essays (30 per cent) and a three-hour unseen exam (70 per cent).

We had course grades for 135 male students and 237 female students. In rank order, performance levels were as follows: women's coursework grades (average 60.65 per cent), followed by female exam performance (58.84 per cent), male performance on coursework (58.62 per cent) and, finally, male exam performance (55.11 per cent).

Our figures showed that women performed better than men on both modes of assessment, and all students performed better on coursework than on examinations.

We also carried out an email survey of 100 students that asked for their opinions about coursework and unseen exams, and about the studying habits and attitudes of male and female undergraduates. The survey highlighted instances of men and women conforming to the stereotypes of female "examophobes" and male "examophiles", but they were far outnumbered by members of both genders whose preferences went against type.

One female student noted: "I seem to respond very well to the pressure exams put you under so they seem a very good way of assessing me." This echoed a trend for female undergraduates to describe themselves as "not panicky about exams", "confident" and "organised".

Conversely, men were just as likely as women to express a fear of taking exams, with those saying exams made them feel "really ill" or "close to a nervous breakdown" outnumbering the women whose reactions were this strong.

There were more surprises in the responses to coursework. One female claimed that submitting pieces of coursework was "the worst experience ever. In the end I was a physical wreck from lack of sleep, stress and anxiety."

For many, the cumulative burden of continuous assessment left them wondering whether a system dominated by exams would be better. So what is fuelling female success?

Most survey respondents claimed that women were working far harder than men. When reporting about their own levels of work, the most common female response was along the lines of "I can't work any harder as it's physically impossible", or "I'm working much harder than I've ever worked in my life". Contrast this with the typical response from over half of the men: "I can't make myself put the hours in. I know how important it is, but I have no motivation" or "I have worked harder this year than before but this is because I finally realised the value of a 2:1, which I will probably not be able to get now. Oh well."

Furthermore, when making more general observations about male and female work patterns, most students characterised men as "more blasé", "apathetic" and "less conscientious". Women were described as "more competitive", "more committed" and less willing to "sacrifice work for fun".

Could old-fashioned hard work lie at the root of women's degree success? One thing seems clear: future research should not turn its focus away from this line of inquiry. Nor should it overly fixate on the mode of assessment issue. Indeed, if we followed Pirie's suggestion that males might be encouraged towards courses in which the final examination counted for more, the gap in performance between men and women could widen still further.

Ruth Woodfield is lecturer in sociology at the School of Social Sciences and Centre of Educational Innovation, University of Sussex.

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