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Gender Differences in the Classroom: Physical, Cognitive & Behavioral

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  1. 0:17 Physical Activity and Motor Skills
  2. 1:24 Cognitive Abilities and Motivation
  3. 3:07 Interpersonal Behavior and…
  4. 4:21 Sense of Self and Self-Esteem
  5. 5:06 Classroom Behavior
  6. 5:48 Gender Differences at…
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Taught by

Melissa Hurst

Growing up, did you ever observe gender differences among girls and boys in school? Do you still observe gender differences as an adult? There are established gender differences noted in a variety of contexts. This lesson will explore specific differences in physical and motor skills, cognitive abilities and more.

Gender Differences in the Classroom

Researchers have identified several areas of difference between boys and girls. While some of these differences may be perpetuated by stereotypes, all are real and observable.

Boys tend to be more physically active than girls and often have trouble with sedentary activities
Physical Activity

Physical Activity and Motor Skills

Within the realm of physical activity and motor skills, researchers have found that boys are generally more active than girls. Boys tend to have trouble sitting still for lengthy periods and therefore do not enjoy activities that are sedentary in nature. Reading, coloring and activities that require sitting still are more difficult for boys.

Pre-puberty boys and girls have similar potential for physical and motor growth, although girls have a slight edge in fine motor skills. After puberty, boys have a biological advantage in physical activity due to their height and muscular development. Boys tend to develop their physical and motor skills more through participation in organized sports.

It's important to understand the educational implications of gender differences between boys and girls. Curriculum, especially involving physical education classes and group sports, should provide equal opportunities for boys and girls to maximize their physical well-being and athletic skills.

Cognitive Abilities and Achievement Motivation

When taking standardized assessments, boys and girls typically perform the same. This is due in part to testing standards in validity and reliability. Researchers have identified gender differences in cognitive abilities, however.

Boys tend to choose math and science courses while girls choose literature and language classes
Gender Differences in Class Choices

Girls have been found to perform slightly higher in verbal ability exercises, while boys tend to perform slightly higher in visual-spatial exercises. It is important to keep in mind that these differences are relatively small.

Boys do tend to show greater variability in cognitive abilities. Boys, more so than girls, appear at the extreme upper and lower ends of the assessment spectrum.

Girls tend to consistently earn higher grades in school and are, on average, more concerned about doing well in school. They are typically more engaged in classroom activities, persist and are more likely to graduate.

Girls tend to gravitate toward activities and courses that they know they will do well in. By the time students are in high school, the courses they select reveal distinct gender differences. Boys typically enroll in math and physical science classes, while girls typically choose language and literature-based courses.

In terms of educational importance, curriculum should involve opportunities for boys and girls to explore areas that they may not feel high self-efficacy towards (such as reading and writing for boys and science and math for girls). These opportunities should promote achievement and appreciation for the unfamiliar or uncomfortable subject matter.

Interpersonal Behavior and Relationships

Researchers have identified gender differences in the way boys and girls interact with their peers. Boys are typically more physically aggressive than girls, especially in elementary and middle school years. Boys are more likely to engage in aggressive and bullying behaviors without being provoked.

Girls can be equally aggressive, but they demonstrate their aggressiveness in nonphysical ways. Spreading rumors, giving mean stares and alienating girls from other friends are examples of these behaviors.

Boys tend to hang out in large groups of other boys. Their activities usually involve physical play, group games and risk-taking. They enjoy competition as well. Girls engage in more cooperative play and are more aware of other girls' mental and emotional states.

The educational importance of being aware of interpersonal behavior and relationship differences is that classrooms should provide numerous opportunities for cooperative group work and frequent interaction with classmates in order to take advantage of boys' natural tendency to play in big groups and girls' natural tendencies to engage in cooperative activities.

Boys tend to engage in competitive physical activity while girls are more cooperative
Gender Differences in Play

Sense of Self and Self-Esteem

When talking about sense of self and self-esteem, boys typically hold a higher overall sense of self-worth than girls beginning in upper elementary or middle school. This could be due in part to boys' tendencies to overestimate their abilities and girls' tendencies to underestimate. Boys have higher self-confidence and view themselves as being better athletes and problem-solvers.

Beginning at puberty, girls tend to hold a lower sense of self-worth and rate their physical appearance less favorably than boys.

Both boys and girls rate themselves higher in academic areas that are stereotypical for their gender, such as math for boys and literature for girls.

Classroom Behavior

When talking about classroom behavior and gender differences, researchers have identified differences in the classroom, with boys tending to be more active participants by talking more and asking questions. Boys also tend to dominate group discussions and ignore girls' ideas and requests. Girls tend to be less likely to publicly volunteer or ask questions, possibly for fear of looking incompetent in front of their peers.

In terms of educational importance, educators may sometimes want to group girls with other girls and boys with other boys to ensure girls actively participate in classroom activities.

Gender Differences at Different Grade Levels

Gender differences can be explored through the various grade levels as well. In early elementary school (kindergarten - 2nd grade), boys and girls are similar in their physical abilities and general cognitive abilities. Children are eager to conform to their stereotypes, though. Girls will tend to play 'house' while boys will engage in more aggressive behavior.

In late elementary school (3rd - 5th grade), boys begin to rate themselves higher in mathematical ability, segregate themselves from girls and engage in competitive and risk-taking behaviors. Girls begin to self-evaluate themselves lower in mathematical ability and they typically have an earlier onset of puberty.

In middle school (6th - 8th grade), girls view themselves more negatively than boys, reporting lower self-esteem levels. Girls are also more occupied with appearance. Boys typically tend to engage in more group sports due to their onset of puberty and increased height and muscular abilities. There is also increasing social interaction between boys and girls.

In high school (9th - 12th grade), girls' self-assessment of physical attractiveness increases. Girls typically seek out courses they do well in and take a greater interest in college than boys. Boys tend to seek out 'hands-on' professions and classes.

Lesson Summary

Gender DifferencesMaleFemale
Physical Activity and Motor SkillsMore active; biological advantage in physical activities; engage in organized sportsEngage in more sedentary activities such as reading
Cognitive, Academic and Achievement AbilitiesHigher visual-spatial abilities; greater variability in cognitive abilities; enroll in math and physical science coursesHigher verbal abilities; earn higher grades and persist more in classroom activities; enroll in language and literature classes
Interpersonal Behavior and RelationshipsPhysically aggressive; hang out in larger groups; enjoy competitionNon-physical aggressiveness; enjoy cooperation; aware of others' mental and emotional states
Sense of Self and Self-EsteemHigher overall self-esteemLower overall self-esteem
Classroom BehaviorActively participate; dominate group discussionsLess likely to publicly volunteer or ask questions
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