Confidence trick

9th January 1998 at 00:00

If girls are outscoring boys at GCSE and A-level why is it that men get more first-class degrees than women? Research suggests that men do better at the highest level partly because they tend to be more confident, and a new study by Dr Maryanne Martin of Oxford University lends credibility to this argument.

Writing in the Oxford Review of Education (vol. 23, no. 4) Dr Martin says that about 16 per cent of male Oxbridge students were gaining first-class degrees in the early 1990s, compared with 9 per cent of females. The gender gap has been widest in subjects such as history where assessors generally reward confident and assertive essay-writers.

Dr Martin therefore set out to measure the mood and anxiety level of 200 Oxford students (89 women and 112 men). Perhaps predictably, she found that men who were most distant from an examination were the least anxious, while women close to exams had the highest anxiety ratings. This anxiety, she suggests, may help to explain why they adopt a more cautious approach to both written and spoken work.

Dr Martin questions whether the boldness with which an argument is presented should be an appropriate criterion for evaluating academic achievement. But she concludes that if bold writing continues to earn the highest marks, universities should either help less confident students to become less anxious or give them special tuition in essay-writing.

Correspondence: Dr Maryanne Martin, University of Oxford Department of Experimental Psychology, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD.

The Oxford Review of Education and Educational Review are both published by Carfax, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

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