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Study explains why females are top of class

A study by Leeds Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom has shown that female students with high resilience levels are likely to outperform male peers academically. The researchers say its findings have implications for student support services in a higher education system that now favours female students.

The study, which was published in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, was a collaboration between the university’s counselling services and its Institute of Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure.

Resilience represents people’s capacity to adapt to new challenges. Higher resilience is generally regarded as helping students to cope with the stresses they face when they begin their studies.

The research project was led by John Allan, a senior lecturer in physical education and sports pedagogy, and Jim McKenna, professor of physical activity and health.

The sample included 1,534 first-year students, who were profiled for their psychological resilience when they started university: their scores were used to predict year-end academic results. Of the group, 51.8 per cent were male and 48.2 per cent female, all aged 18 or 19 at the time of the research.

Resilience gender difference

Preliminary analysis showed that the link between resilience and academic performance was similar across all student cohorts. Yet further analysis revealed an important gender difference: resilience had more positive effects in females than males.

Allan, who conducted the research, said: “This large, distinctive study has implications for student support practices. It highlights that the relationship between resilience and academic achievement requires further consideration in higher education.”

The findings, he added, confirmed the unpredictability of adaptive capacity. “Although some males showed signs of resilience in respect to attainment – almost one-fifth of males high in resilience attained a 2.1 grade – there were twice as many others with similarly high scores who acquired lower grades, while another portion withdrew from study.

“While this might seem to signify a negative academic outcome, it could easily represent a purposeful and functional choice. Certainly there are concerns at how the general nature of higher education has evolved to favour female students; our data confirmed that females do better with every unit increase in self-reported resilience.”

McKenna told University World News: “We can only speculate why there are these differences. However, there are established gender differences in interaction styles. These are more or less effective within modern day higher education.

“Stereotypically, young women acquire and refine personal strengths using inter-personal factors – reciprocity, problem-sharing and trust-based interactions. These compare with what the literature suggests is the case for males, which tends to be about problem-solving (which is broadly a reactive orientation) and independence.

“Given that the workload – and assessment methods – that increasingly dominate higher education are based on group-work, it will be efficient for females to transfer what they do in daily life to their studies.

“For males, group-work may impose extra work; this may involve acquiring new skills, deploying unrefined skills or using existing skills in ways they haven’t yet discovered. In this understanding, when improvement in higher education relies on help-seeking, the males may feel a further disadvantage.”

He said that although at the end of the inductees’ first academic year the outcomes suggested similar academic performance by gender, higher resilience was progressively and incrementally associated with higher-grade profiles for females.

“In some males, and contrary to the conventional understanding of resilience, higher resilience was linked with poorer prospective academic performance. This may be explained by gender-specific differences in how resilience is built.

“Our analysis revealed that twice as many high-resilience females, over high-resilience males, achieved the two highest grade classification outcomes.”

Targeted interventions

The research results have led to targeted interventions for male students to access counselling by Leeds Met’s counselling services.

The department has run various campaigns, including one called Big Boys Should Cry, to highlight the need for help and to try to break down the stigma attached to men seeking help for their problems.

Former Leeds Met counsellor Sue Dominey, who has since left the university but spearheaded the campaign, told University World News: “It’s important to acknowledge gender specific issues for men and the barriers to asking for help.

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