Essex girls, Essex women … new research on single-sex classes at university

Today’s edition of The Independent reports some very interesting small scale research at Essex University, where a group of students was split, randomly, into three teaching groups by gender – a male only group, a female only group, and a mixed gender group. At the end of the year, the marks of the female only group were 8% higher than the marks of the other two groups, which is statistically significant, and an interesting result. Of course, there may have been many factors at play here – it was a small scale study, the students do not appear to have been filtered for raw intelligence, so it is possible that one group (by chance) was more prone to higher marks anyway – but the remarks made by the participants indicated that they felt that their success was in no small part due to the single-gender grouping.

What is it about single-sex groupings that works so well for girls? The young women interviewed identified the collaborative nature of the relationships that emerged – they ‘bonded’ – as well as the fostering of a confidence to be competitive and to take risks. This, the article pointed out, was also identified in a similar study in schools in Essex and Suffolk, where girls who attended an all-girls’ school were found to be much more willing to take risks in the classroom than girls who attended a mixed school. Interestingly, the three female university students interviewed for the Independent article, now all back in mixed gender groups for their second year of their university course, all reported that they were much less likely to contribute to their mixed classes in the way in which they had contributed over the past year in their single-sex classes.

As a proponent of single-sex education, having taught all-boys, co-ed (in two schools), and now all-girls, it makes perfect sense to me that creating a single-sex environment gives girls a space to learn the confidence to be them, free of the gender stereotypes still bombarding girls and women that tell them how to be a woman (most of which do not involve stretching themselves, taking risks, being positively competitive etc). Personally, and from experience, I think single-sex works extremely well for boys, too – it lets boys be boys, just as it lets girls be girls, as a part of their learning experience. People worry sometimes that by teaching boys and girls separately we reduce their ability to be able to relate to each other; we should remember that lessons and classes make up only a small fraction of their formative years, and that there are plenty of opportunities for them to meet and learn to negotiate their relationships outside the classroom. If we are able to provide our young people with a space for them to learn genuinely just to be themselves, to understand what their gender means for them, and to learn to understand themselves, then we are giving them a great gift.

And this was what the students from Essex University discovered last year.

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