Self-Control Gap?

By Michelle R. Davis — February 14, 2007 6 min read
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This article was originally published in Education Week.

Concern over boys and whether they were falling behind girls in classroom achievement and college enrollment drew a spate of media interest last year. All that attention, in turn, sparked a backlash of sorts from analysts who argued that boys were still making academic strides, but that girls were just making greater ones.

What may have gotten lost in the conversation, suggests Angela Lee Duckworth, a research associate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, are gender differences in an area that has attracted little research attention over the years: the old-fashioned attribute of self-discipline.

Girls typically get better grades than boys in elementary, middle, and high school. But those higher grades are not always predicted, on average, by their performance on IQ or achievement tests.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, female students have outperformed boys in reading for decades. Yet girls tend to score lower on some other standardized tests, including some Advanced Placement tests and parts of the widely used SAT and ACT college-entrance exams. (“Concern Over Gender Gaps Shifting to Boys,” March 15, 2006.)

“Self-Discipline Gives Girls the Edge: Gender in Self-Discipline, Grades, and Achievement Test Scores” is posted by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences.

Ms. Duckworth wondered why. So along with University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin E.P. Seligman, she decided to find out.

“As a teacher, I saw kids who were quite bright and for non-IQ reasons were completely underperforming,” said Ms. Duckworth, a former high school math teacher. “There were also students who were not overachieving on IQ tests and standardized tests, but would have a 99 in class. Clearly there was a non-IQ component to school achievement.”

Explanations for the “underprediction” of girls’ grade point averages by their performance on standardized tests—and the “overprediction” of boys—has often focused on gender differences favoring boys on such assessments, the researchers point out. But they say their work bears out the additional explanation reflected in the title of their study on the topic published last year: “Self-Discipline Gives Girls the Edge.”

8th Graders Compared

For that study, published in the February 2006 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology,Ms. Duckworth and Mr. Seligman set out to measure gender differences in self-discipline by studying a socioeconomically and ethnically diverse group of 198 8th graders who were all taking nearly identical courses in Philadelphia.

The design of the study, conducted in 2002, aimed to rule out the possibility that girls earned higher grades than boys simply because they chose easier courses.

The researchers looked at report card grades, school attendance, and scores on standardized achievement tests. They found that girls earned significantly higher grades in mathematics, English, and social studies than boys did.

To measure self-discipline, the researchers administered questionnaires to the students, their parents, and their teachers. All three groups overwhelmingly rated girls as more self-disciplined.

University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin E.P. Seligman and research associate Angela Lee Duckworth pose in their offices in Philadelphia.

In a “delay test,” moreover, in which students were given a dollar bill and asked if they wanted it right away or wanted to wait for $2 later on, girls more often waited for the greater sum.

To confirm the findings of their 2002 research, Ms. Duckworth and Mr. Seligman did a second study the next year with another group of 164 8th graders. This time, they added an IQ test to compare the relationship of aptitude and achievement tests, gender, self-discipline, and report card grades.

The second study also found that girls were more self-disciplined than boys. For example, girls reported they had devoted an average of one hour per day to homework, almost twice the amount of time that boys spent.

Surprisingly, even though the grades of the girls in the study were significantly better than boys’, and their standardized-test scores were also slightly better, the boys involved still earned substantially higher IQ scores than the girls. So using IQ scores to predict achievement was even less accurate than using achievement-test scores, the researchers found.

“We wanted to figure out this enigma,” Ms. Duckworth said.

Policy Implications

The study may have implications for educators and policymakers, Ms. Duckworth said, including some directly related to federal policy. The federal No Child Left Behind Act uses state testing to measure how well students are doing in school and to determine whether certain subgroups of students are making adequate yearly progress.

“It should be recognized that standardized tests measure a single point in time,” Ms. Duckworth said. “We’re not saying a report card is better [for measuring achievement], but it should be acknowledged that [grades and test scores] tap into different things.”

Jo Anne Rodkey, the principal of Woodward Avenue Elementary School in Deland, Fla., said studies such as Ms. Duckworth’s can inform educators involved in single-sex education. Late last year the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations making it easier for public schools to educate boys and girls separately. (“New U.S. Rules Boost Single-Sex Schooling,” Nov. 1, 2006.)

At Ms. Rodkey’s school, most students attend coeducational classes, but each grade has one all-girls class and one all-boys class. “Motivation is an issue that all teachers are interested in, because it’s the heart of success at school,” the principal said. The findings about self-discipline and gender “don’t surprise me,” she added.

Often, Ms. Rodkey said, the issue of self-discipline shows up this way: Boys are confident that they know the material—even when they don’t—and therefore don’t feel they have to study it again.

Girls might know the material, but often wait for someone else, like a teacher, to tell them they’ve got it, she said. “Girls tend to overlearn, where boys tend to underlearn,” Ms. Rodkey said.

Piece of the Puzzle

Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, said the self-discipline study is just one piece of a much larger research puzzle.

Other studies have found few gender differences in math and science achievement and such factors as self-esteem, she said. Moreover, some of the gender differences in self-discipline that the study found were small, said Ms. Silva, who specializes in equity issues.

“I don’t think this can stand alone as evidence for whether or not girls do have more self-discipline,” she said. “I would caution against pedagogical responses based on that, because I don’t think we do know enough about this or enough about how schools play into self-discipline.”

Other gender differences also affect achievement, said Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her studies have shown that girls have much more anxiety, for example, and that it impairs performance on timed, standardized tests, such as the SAT.

Studies examining how well SAT scores predict college grades actually showed that girls got higher grades in college than boys who outscored them on the college-admissions tests, she said.

“Girls just work harder,” Ms. Eccles said. “Being a good student, broadly defined, is important to them.”

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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