March 28, 2013

Gender Differences in Learning Preferences?

by Rachel Flurie, PGY1 Pharmacotherapy Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Extensive research has documented that people learn in different ways and there are a variety of surveys and analytical schema to categorize these different learning preferences. This allows a person to understand how they learn best and also allows the teacher/learner to select teaching/learning methods that compliment these preferences. For example, I took the VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic) survey and found out that I am mostly a Read/Write learner.1 Now that I have insight as to how I learn best, I can optimize my learning by picking materials that capitalize on my strengths. It’s always fun to take these questionnaires because they give you insights that you might not have been able to figure out on your own. In these learning descriptors, the emphasis is on the individual, irrespective of any other attributes or classifications we may have. But I began to wonder if fundamental genetic characteristics might influence our learning style.  For example, do males and females have learning preferences that are inherent to their gender?

In a broad sense, several stereotypes already exist about males and females when it comes to learning.  Men gravitate towards the sciences while women are attracted to the arts.  Men learn better by doing and women learning better by pondering. These stereotypes were perhaps relevant back when there was a distinctive division between males and females in terms of gender roles.  But do these stereotypes still apply today?  Or are learning styles truly based on individual preferences?

In my search for answers, I found several reviews and studies that focused on gender differences in learning preferences.2,3  One review and meta-analysis explained the differences it found by relating them to Curry’s onion model.2  In this model there are three layers that explain learning preferences.   Learning preferences that fall in the inner most layer are considered fixed; those that fall in the middle layer are pretty stable but they are still subject to change; and those preferences that fall in the outer layer can be easily modified.  The meta-analysis found only one study out of 19 that showed a difference between men and women in an “inner layer” learning preference – certainly not enough to warrant a change in educational methods.  In the middle layer of the onion, a few studies that assessed learning preferences using Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory showed the following2:
  • Women prefer concrete experiences while men prefer abstract concepts
  • Women are more socially oriented than men
  • Men are more grade-oriented and more competitive than women

In thinking back to all of my experiences, I would generally nod in agreement with these conclusions. The fact that they fall into the middle layer of the onion is a key point because these preferences might be linked to gender, but they’re certainly not permanent. As an educator, I would be mindful about these preferences when teaching. In circumstances where the learners are predominantly one gender, altering your teaching style based on these preferences might be helpful. For example, you might plan for more group discussions over individual assignments in an all-female classroom. But in mixed gender classrooms, other issues should influence your teaching more (e.g. the material being taught, the setting, the prerequisite knowledge of the learners).

Authors in another review noted that their literature search revealed a lot of variability in learning preference based on gender (and in some cases they were even contradictory!). For example, two studies used the same VARK survey to explore gender-associated learning differences.4,5 One study, done in undergraduate physiology students, found that the males preferred multimodal instruction whereas the females were more likely to have single-mode preferences. The other study, done in first year medical students, found that the females tended to be more multimodal in learning style compared to their male counterparts. Perhaps the preferred learning style is also based on the material being taught? Personally, I think I have different learning preferences when I’m learning to cook a meal versus learning how to treat a patient’s hypertension. In the end, I’ve concluded, apart from a few generalizations that have been made, learning preferences are not significantly influenced by gender.

Suffice it to say, as a current learner and educator, I will not be relying on stereotypes when it comes to men versus women in education. Instead, I will consider learning preferences on an individual basis and will select the most appropriate methods based on the material being taught. While some preferences in life might be heavily influenced by gender, learning style is not one of them.

1. Fleming N. VARK® A guide to learning styles [Internet]. 2001 [cited 2013 March 11]. Available from:
2. Severiens SE and Ten Dam GTM. Gender differences in learning styles: a narrative review and quantitative meta-analysis. High Educ. 1994;27:487-501.
3. Severiens SE and Ten Dam GTM. Gender and gender identity differences in learning styles. Edu Psychol. 1997;17:79-93.
4. Wehrwein EA, Lujan HL, DiCarlo SE. Gender differences in learning style preferences among undergraduate physiology students. Adv Physiol Educ. 2007;31:153-157.
5. Slater JA, Lujan HL, DiCarlo SE. Does gender influence style preferences of first-year medical students? Adv Physiol Educ. 2007;31:336-342.

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