Gender Differences in the Classroom: Physical, Cognitive & Behavioral

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  • 0:17 Physical Activity and…
  • 1:24 Cognitive Abilities…
  • 3:07 Interpersonal Behavior…
  • 4:21 Sense of Self and Self-Esteem
  • 5:06 Classroom Behavior
  • 5:48 Gender Differences at…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

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.

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