Students

Rogue male undergraduates?
Do we have rogue males amongst our undergraduates? HAVE you noticed any sex differences amongst psychology undergraduates? You have probably noted an unequal sex distribution, males being in the minority in psychology. Indeed, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in the UK, females now represent 56 per cent of all undergraduates. In psychology this is more extreme with males being a stable minority of around 21 per cent. Have you noted any other differences? Who is most likely to respond to questions asked during a lecture? Or to dominate group work? Or perform well in assessments?

Do we have rogue males amongst our undergraduates?

HAVE you noticed any sex differences amongst psychology undergraduates? You have probably noted an unequal sex distribution, males being in the minority in psychology. Indeed, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in the UK, females now represent 56 per cent of all undergraduates. In psychology this is more extreme with males being a stable minority of around 21 per cent. Have you noted any other differences? Who is most likely to respond to questions asked during a lecture? Or to dominate group work? Or perform well in assessments? Or attend regularly? We made a light-hearted collection of anecdotes about behavioural differences along these lines which provided some amusement. It turned out that these differences were supported by the research literature on the topic (see tinyurl.com/2ttog4). As a result, we decided to collect our students’ views about this.
We first asked our Level 1 students about their priorities at university. Males saw both academic and non-academic aspects of university life as equally important whereas females had a greater bias towards the academic side.
We also wanted to explore differences in behaviour, so we asked the same year group to complete our Academic Behavioural Confidence Scale, which has 24 statements about a range of behaviours and respondents rate their confidence in their own ability to undertake these behaviours (see tinyurl.com/ys7ald). These behaviours can be loosely categorised into achievement, speaking up, diligence, and time management. We found no overall differences in the total scores, but males were significantly less confident than females on two of the five statements in the diligence category: ‘be able to prepare thoroughly for tutorials’ and ‘be able to make the most of the opportunity of studying for a degree at university’.
As teaching staff, we are also concerned about attendance at taught sessions. We asked our students about this, too. They rated the perceived attendance of males in their year group and in their social group as significantly poorer than the females. However there was no significant difference between the sexes in their perceptions of their own attendance, suggesting that whilst the males think other male students have a poor attendance record, they do not apply this to themselves.
Finally, we wanted to know what they thought about likely academic achievement. Females are currently doing better across the sector, more achieving a first class or upper second degree (60 per cent against 52 per cent) and fewer achieving third class awards (10 per cent against 15 per cent), and females’ marks are 1.5 per cent higher; there is no reason why psychology should be different.
We asked our Level 1 students what they thought would be the average mark for their peers and we indicated a (hypothetical) norm of 57 per cent. All students rated the perceived performance of both the males in their year group and those in their own social group as significantly poorer than females. Male self-estimates did not differ significantly from the 57 per cent norm, whereas females self-estimates were significantly above it. Hence males see their own performance as on target for this supposed ‘UK norm’, females think they will exceed it. On this issue, males’ expectations are the more realistic. However, there was no significant difference between the sexes in their estimates of their own performance. Here again male students tend to subscribe to the generally negative view of males, but do not think this applies to themselves.
Thus male students are perceived as failing to turn up and failing to achieve. Against this backdrop, males do not think this applies to them individually, see socialising as being as important as studying, are unsure whether they can make the most of being at university, but have realistic expectations of their own performance. This minority group is therefore experiencing an additional disadvantage by these prevailing negative perceptions, whether or not they are justified. All students need access to academic support within their department and tutors need to promote the integration of students. Additional support may be required, however, to help males integrate and overcome this negative stereotyping.

Dr Lalage Sanders and Dr Paul Sander are in the Cardiff School of Health Sciences, University of Wales Institute.
E-mail: [email protected].

Discussion points

1. Negative stereotypes of the males as poor students and poor attendees seem to be pervasive; even male students buy into them. What causes such negative stereotyping?
2. Why do individual males think that this negative stereotype applies only to others and not to themselves?
3. Females, in contrast to males seem, however, to expect to perform better than their peers. Why might this be? And is it justified?
4. Given these contradictory tensions surrounding males studying psychology, what could tutors to do help and support their male students?
E-mail your thoughts to ‘Letters’ on [email protected], or members can contribute to the discussion (as well as seek work experience, information and more) at www.psychforum.org.uk.

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