Profound differences between how men and women learn are the reason why men at Cambridge are nearly twice as likely to get a first as women, according to a study by the university to be published on Friday.
Chris Mann, who tracked the experiences of 200 students from enrolment in 1997 to graduation three or four years later, concluded that women wanted to understand their subject while men were principally interested in how well they performed.
The difference was reinforced by a teaching staff that was predominantly male and, therefore, more likely to see “intellectual muscle-flexing” as a sign of excellence than a readiness to listen, absorb and synthesise.
Mann said the contrast was best illustrated by the different success rates of men and women in chemistry and maths. Chemistry, in which women gain more firsts than men, was organised in ways that encouraged students to understand things from first principles.
Maths, on the other hand, was a “kind of competition you train for”.
The emphasis was not on understanding but on speed in problem-solving, and the men outshone the women.
Less obvious was why men outperformed women in English, history and modern and medieval languages.
Mann said men had more confidence in their innate ability and in using examination techniques while women perhaps suffered from trying too hard and being fearful of failure.
Another key, though, was Cambridge’s method of teaching by tutorials or “supervisions” — one-to-one or small-group discussions at which a student’s weekly work is analysed.
“Women who seek deep understanding will ask more questions than men, may advance more tentatively and are initially more receptive to the authority of teaching staff,” Mann said.
Men, on the other hand, made more suggestions, moved forward more rapidly and were more challenging with staff and other students.
Mann said that training for supervisors to make them aware of the differences in approach of men and women and to ensure that women were given the feedback and reassurance they needed should be compulsory.
Officers of the university students’ union welcomed the report’s findings.
“I really want a first and now I know how to get it,” said Chris Holly, the women’s officer. “I shall be more assertive in supervisions. There is such a lack of teaching study skills in this university.”
Publication of the report is also likely to fuel student demands for less emphasis on three-hour “sudden-death” exams — thought to be better suited to men than women — and more emphasis on continuous assessment.
Mann’s study found no relationship between students’ success at Cambridge and the type of school they attended or their social class.