Girls, Girls, Girls – Peer Effects in the Classroom

In Evidence in Education, Research Evidence by Alex Quigley2 Comments

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Finding the answer to school improvement troubles us all, and yet, sometimes the answers are sitting there at their desks looking straight at us. In short, having more girls helps improve learning. Gender grouping is the answer…case closed!

It likely chimes with much of our personal experience as teachers. The evidence concurs with our seeming instinct, with a fascinating study on ‘Mechanisms and Impacts of Gender Peer Effects at School‘ (Lavy and Shlosser, 2007) showing that increasing the proportion of girls in the classroom leads to a “significant improvement in students’ cognitive outcomes“. So, having girls in our classes aids learning, but what do that mean for us?

I have written before about the impact of gender in the classroom, with a particular interest in the in-class grouping of students. Research had shown (Smith-Lovin & Brody, 1989) that in adult conversation, that as the number of females in the group rises, the number of male interruptions decreases. This led me to question whether this influence our grouping decisions, or should guide us toward mixed gender groupings in the classroom.

The research by Lavy and Schosser tries to get ‘inside the black box’ of peer effects in the classroom. Some of their key evidence shows the following:

“An examination of the underlying mechanisms of the gender peer effects shows that a higher proportion of girls in the classroom lowers the level of classroom disruption and violence, and improves inter-student and teacher-student relationships as well as students’ satisfaction with school. It also significantly alters teaching methods and lessens teachers’ fatigue and feelings of burnout, although it does not affect their overall work satisfaction. On the other hand, we find no evidence that having more girls in a class leads to clearer and more enforceable disciplinary rules at school.”

The research doesn’t indicate that the mere presence of girls causes the improvement in the behaviour of the boys, only that as the number of girls in the class increases, then so does the proportion of well-behaved students. Student behaviour is of course tied to time on task, learning and ultimately student outcomes. So, simply increasing the proportion of girls in the class won’t prove some magic answer to misbehavior, but a sensitive approach to such grouping composition is clearly something we should consider wisely.

If we are designing whole school grouping models we should ask the question more broadly of our grouping: How do we best create a gender balance across our groupings?

For teachers who are not making grouping decisions, we can ask: What within class groupings can best balance and enhance the learning in our class?

In my former role as Subject Leader of English, I can remember making such grouping decisions instinctively, looking to balance the composition of each class so that the chemistry was as good as it could be. My intuitions chime with the research, which may prove obvious to many, but it certainly made me once more consider the impact of gender on school success. My time in an all male school clearly limited me more than I ever imagined!


Related reading:

Why can’t boys be…Well, more like girls? This blog questions the very notion of gender assumptions in school. It is important not to leap to stereotypes, which this blog could potentially encourage.


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