Why male students' brains are light on detail

Study reopens debate on differences in how men and women think, reports Olga Wojtas

July 31, 2008

The provocative debate about potential differences between male and female brains was poised to return to the agenda this week, with new research showing significant differences in the way undergraduates report how they think and learn.

A study showing that female students pay more attention to detail while male students take a "rule-of-thumb" approach to learning, drawing conclusions based on less information, was to be presented at the annual Improving University Teaching conference at the University of Strathclyde, as Times Higher Education went to press.

Kevin Downing, senior education development officer at the City University of Hong Kong, investigated findings from his institution's Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (Lassi), which records students' perceptions of how they approach study.

Dr Downing, a developmental psychologist, oversees institutional research on teaching and learning. But he admitted in an interview with Times Higher Education that "this is the first time I've dared venture into gender territory".

"I don't take the view of 'let's all be the same'," he said. "But let's recognise where our strengths and weaknesses might be."

The Lassi scales measure students' perceptions on issues such as how they process information, their willingness to make an effort, how they manage their time and how they maintain concentration.

Dr Downing found that female students had a much more positive attitude to their academic studies, and paid far more attention to detail, but were also much more anxious about their work than the male students.

Males used less information when making decisions and were more likely to take a "rule-of-thumb" approach to compensate for the lack of information available to them.

The female students' stress might stem from their having to process more information, Dr Downing said.

He was sceptical about the theory that male and female brains are wired differently, but speculated that the differences in approaches to study might stem, in part, from their different approaches to teenage friendships.

Boys tended to congregate in hierarchical groups, while girls tended to have one or two close friends.

"Friendship requires quite a bit of attention to detail and self-regulation.

"Perhaps females develop these skills earlier, so when they get to first-year level, they're more practised," he said.

Dr Downing said academics reported that it was female students who tended to ask more questions before an assignment was due.

"That may be because they are trying to grapple with larger chunks of data than the males," he said.

"In terms of deep learning, it may well be that females have the advantage, but in terms of producing things very quickly, perhaps males have the advantage. This is something that needs more research."

The findings have just been published in the Multicultural Education and Technology Journal.

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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