A comparison of more than 400 university students has found that males and females adopt radically different learning styles. The results have important implications for the success of students which have hitherto gone unnoticed, according to study author Kate Greasley.
Ms Greasley, a lecturer at Derby University's business school, said that the relationship between gender and learning in higher education was an unexplored field, which was surprising given the increasing numbers of female students and the clear link between study styles and academic success.
She said the findings suggested that some university departments were discriminating against female students by unwittingly encouraging them to adopt less successful strategies.
Two groups of students were analysed; first 300 business studies, then 120 further students from different disciplines. The two sets of findings were broadly similar. The study took the form of formal questionnaires backed by focus group discussions around three categories of learning. First is the "deep approach" which is typified by learners who have a genuine interest in their subject, are able to relate to it and want to learn more. Second is the "surface approach" which involves little more than regurgitating information through rote learning with no ambition of real understanding. Finally, the "strategic approach" is designed to achieve the highest grades by, for instance, writing what the student thinks the lecturer wants to hear by continuously looking for clues in assessment requirements.
Ms Greasley stresses that the categories are not always mutually exclusive but she believes the study has uncovered "significant relationships" between gender and approaches to learning.
Perhaps the most striking is that the women tended to be driven by fear of failure. "A fear of failure simply means that students are preoccupied with the fact that they might fail rather than the subject content," Ms Greasley says. "They tend therefore not to take the time to develop deep understanding. They just want to pass, to get by."
The female students were more adversely affected by workload pressure and by anxiety about speaking in tutorials than the males. They spoke of holding back on their ideas in case they were wrong, and they were not prepared to take risks.
The fear of failure may also explain why female students tend to read around the subject more before writing their ideas down in order to find supportive evidence.
At the same time, however, the study found women were more likely to use a surface approach to learning, often because workloads meant there was too little time to think about their reading.
This would have a negative impact on their marks. "If females feel intimidated and overworked it is likely that a surface approach will be adopted," says Ms Greasley. "Therefore if academic departments do encourage a surface fear of failure approach they are not only discouraging the full learning potential of all students, but female students in particular."