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This issue of CDTL Brief on Gender and Learning Styles discusses gender in the context of learning as well as the cultural and social issues surrounding it.

January 2004, Vol. 7, No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Learning Goals and Styles by Gender—A Study of NUS Students
Associate Professor Weining C. Chang
Department of Social Work & Psychology

Do men and women learn differently? This seemingly simple question is very difficult to answer. This is because men and women are not only biologically different, but they are also brought up in different ways with different social expectations. As a result, men and women behave differently and such behavioural differences are reflected in academic aptitudes.

My students and I conducted a survey to look into whether men and women learn differently in NUS. Taking a relatively small sample of 45 males and 109 females (the uneven distribution of males and females is representative of the student body of Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), we investigated the students’ conceptualisation of mastery and performance goals while taking a required course. Mastery and performance are Individually Oriented Goals (IOAG). Mastery goals are goals that drive one to master a topic and learn it well, while performance goals are goals that drive one to perform to get good grades. Besides these two individually oriented goals, I have recently, based on the extensive studies conducted on Asian students, constructed a Socially Oriented Goals (SOAG) instrument to reflect the collective emphasis in the Asian cultures. SOAG looks at the motivation to learn or study in order to obtain acceptance and to avoid rejection by one’s community. Together with the established framework of individually based mastery and performance goals, we developed a dichotomous framework to study how male and female students approach learning in the university through socially and individually oriented goals.

While both male and female students scored high on mastery and performance (the two individually-oriented goals), the females were higher on the performance goal orientation (i.e. working for tangible indices of performance such as marks or grades) than the males. Compared with male students, female students also scored higher on socially oriented goals. It is further noted that the individually and socially based performance goals are positively correlated thus, lending support to the notion that female students obtain grades for socially oriented purposes instead of seeing grades as an achievement or an end in itself.

We therefore come to an initial conclusion that males and females are equally high on the intrinsic motivation to achieve (i.e. mastery of skills and knowledge), but females also tend to work for grades for social purposes. I must emphasise here that the social orientation to learn and achieve can be found in both male and female Asian students, but more so for female students. In Asia, especially in communities influenced by Confucian Heritage such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Singapore, academic achievement has always been considered as a means to social esteem. It is noteworthy that in this modern community of Singapore, such social pressure seems to affect women more. This could be because female students are more sensitive to social expectations, which results in an added motivation to achieve, not just for themselves, but also for the others around them. However, fortunately, the female students’ sensitivity to social pressure does not come at the expense of their intrinsic motivation to learn and to achieve, as reflected by the high score in the individually based mastery goals and remain as high as those of their male counterparts.

So, are the differences in goal orientation between our male and female students relevant to us as lecturers? Is there anything that we can do with this information?

The answer is yes. As a teacher, I see it as my responsibility to facilitate learning by using a student-centred approach (i.e. teaching according to students’ learning style). While there are students who learn in a more independent way, others prefer to learn in a more socially oriented way. For the latter, learning is motivated by social rewards. Therefore, when teaching students who are more socially oriented in their learning approach, we could provide more social encouragement and incentives for their learning, such as public recognition of a job well done and individual or small group consultations. Students with high socially oriented goals may also find it beneficial to study with a small group of friends. For large NUS courses, which might be impersonal, it would be a good practice to encourage students to form small study groups, as is the case in prestigious American universities.

In summary, while NUS male and female students were found to have high individually oriented goal conceptualisations, females are higher on socially oriented goal conceptualisations and tend to pay more attention to tangible performance indicators. Males and females however are equally high on mastery orientation—learning for the sake of mastering the knowledge and skills afforded in the university. It is proposed that attention be paid to help students who are more socially oriented in their learning approaches.

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Inside this issue
How Do Male and Female Students Approach Learning at NUS?
Learning Goals and Styles by Gender—A Study of NUS Students
A Study Investigating the Impact of Web-enhanced Learning on Student Motivation