4 ways we closed the GCSE gender gap

Mark Enser’s department saw girls outperforming boys at GCSE - but a concerted effort brought gender equality

GCSE revision

There is a stubborn gap between male and female GCSE attainment in our schools. 

It seems to run across most, if not all, subjects and across all stages of education. 

Boys struggle to do as well as girls at GCSE, and schools up and down the country are desperately scrabbling around for solutions. 

GCSE changes

In my own department, we had seen our results improve for our boys year-on-year and yet the gap remained as the girls saw the same rate of improvement. 

But since then, it has narrowed and then last year it finally closed. 

It is always difficult to attribute improvements in results to any one thing in education but on this I would point to something we really focused on - study skills. 

GCSE differences

In a piece for Tes, Nick Rose pointed to a paper by Griffin et al (2012) titled Do Learning and Study Skills Affect Academic Performance?, which found that pupils’ learning and study skills correlated strongly with their academic performance and that there was a statistically significant difference in these skills between male and female students. 

It also found that once these differences were controlled for, there was no difference between male and female attainment.

In other words, when male students studied more like a typical female student, they did just as well. 

This led to us, as a department, changing how we approached revision with our pupils. 

Teaching changes

Firstly, we made sure our advice was crystal clear that not all revision techniques are equal.

Research by Gagnon and Cormier (2019) found that the most effective pupils studied using distributed practice, and these pupils were more likely to be female. 

Distributed practice means they didn’t just cram for a big test, but revised little and often during the course and revisited previous topics more frequently. 

This gender difference in how revision is approached could be due to difference in confidence.

Certainly research involving adults, and, in particular, adults working in finance, has found that males are more likely to be overconfident in their abilities, whereas females are more likely to doubt themselves. 

Gender gap 

It seems conceivable that this over-confidence in our male pupils could mean that they are less likely to feel the need to check their learning as they are confident (even if this confidence is misplaced).

We, therefore, make sure that pupils have to check what they have learned frequently and do not rely on what they believe they have learned. 

This overconfidence can be further reinforced through choosing ineffective revision methods.

GCSE revision

A review of research into effective revision by Dunlosky, summarised in "Strengthening the Student Toolbox" (2013), shows that, for a method to be effective, it must lead to pupils having to struggle and think hard. They need to do practice testing, mix up topics and try to elaborate on ideas. 

Methods that were less effective, such as highlighting and rereading notes or summarising notes, don’t involve thinking hard. Instead, they give a feeling of confidence as seeing the notes makes students believe they know the content. 

The more they reread their notes, the more students summarise what they are reading, the more confident they feel, but without ever really having to check they have learned it and so avoiding a fear of failure (something that authors of Boys Don’t Try? point out is another cause of gender disparity in our schools). 

As a result, we have been very careful to explain to pupils why these methods don’t work and to show them the research to convince them to change what they do.

New approaches

We have also shared this research with parents so that they know how to encourage their children to revise. This, as with everything else, benefits both boys and girls; the girls were just more likely to be doing it already. 

So to recap, the changes we put in place were:

1. Teach pupils how to revise effectively

Show them the research that suggests they need to revise from memory and not from their notes. Explain that it is OK if they find this difficult, and that this is part of an important process.

2. No opt-out

We stopped simply leaving revision up to them. It would be nice if children took responsibility for their own learning but children are often quite poor at delayed gratification; boys even more so than girls

We now use homework time for distributed practice so that pupils are always reviewing things they learned in previous topics. This also gives them opportunities to practice effective study skills throughout their time with us. 

3. Honest review 

We want pupils to really know what they know and get rid of the overconfidence of assuming that they know things simply because they were in the lesson or have the notes.

We use regular quizzing that helps pupils to see where they may have gaps and use learning checklists where pupils have to answer questions to prove they have learned something, rather than just ticking a box because they think they have learned it. 

4. Curriculum planning

We have also ensured that our curriculum reflects what we know about effective ways of learning.

We revisit topics in lessons, review what pupils have learned, and link different parts of the course together.

Our pupils now know that it is not enough to have simply done a lesson. Instead, it is clear they are expected to have learned it as this learning will be called on again. 

 

All of this has, I believe, helped us to close the gender gap in terms of our pupils' outcomes.

More importantly, though, it has led to all our pupils becoming more justifiably confident in what they know and can do and, therefore, less anxious and much happier.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark 






 

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Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: An essential guide to effective and efficient teaching is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark

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