Speaking out in Class: Which Gender is More Confident?


In many traditional classrooms, the focus is on the teacher, and students play the role of passive audience members. Modern teaching philosophy is leaning in the direction of student-centered instruction styles, in which classrooms are structured to allow more meta-cognitive processes to take place. This style of instruction requires that students actively engage in their education, with their classmates, and with their instructor, during classroom discussion and lectures. A sense of freedom to instigate interactions with the teacher is a necessary component of this type of classroom environment. In this study, research was conducted on the interaction between teachers and students within various classroom cultures. This study focuses on comparing instigation based on gender, attempting to determine which gender actively interacts with the instructor more often.

Background & Hypothesis

In the changing landscape of education, the relationship between teacher and student also changes. What was once rows and columns of desks facing a chalkboard are now collaborative working spaces, with tables and small groups. The social dynamics of a classroom have changed, and students and teachers are expected to keep up with new philosophies and approaches to teaching. The old-fashioned ways of corporal punishment and repetitive, memorization-based learning have expired, and are now replaced by more discovery- and play-based educational practices.

In “A Brief History of Education,” Peter Gray states that, “for several thousand years after the advent of agriculture, the education of children was, to a considerable degree, a matter [of] squashing their willfulness in order to make them good laborers.” Throughout history, education has simply been a way to brainwash children into conforming to the behavior that society deemed appropriate. “A good child was an obedient child,” Gray continues, “who suppressed his or her urge to play and explore and dutifully carried out the orders of adult masters.” This method of instruction no longer works, however, and classrooms have begun to open themselves up to new ideas. Freedom, play, and exploration are at the core of these new classroom methods, allowing students to naturally come to learning on their own.

In his article, “The Banking Concept of Education,” Paulo Freire proposes “problem-posing education” as an alternative to old-fashioned “factory-style” education. Problem-posing education empowers students to solve problems in order to gain skills, instead of absorbing knowledge like a bank account. This style of learning allows students to be fully engaged, and take ownership of their education. One new educational technique, called Project-Based Learning, incorporates Freire’s theories in a practical classroom, in which students are given control over many of their own assignments. This new teaching style focuses on the class working independently on various projects of their choosing, and the teacher functioning as a tour guide for these open-ended assignments. Students are expected to be fairly self-sufficient, creative, and ask for help when needed. This strategy of teaching is attractive because it forces students to become intrinsically motivated to learn.

In the midst of these exciting new developments in educational theory, the question is whether or not students are truly prepared for these new classrooms. Students must possess a certain level of freedom and confidence in their ability to perform in this type of environment. Teachers cannot simply place students into the deep end and allow them to find their way to shore. For students that thrive in the classical academic environment, some scaffolding and step-by-step instruction must accompany these renovations to classroom structure. In addition, bilingual and language-learning students must also be considered. It may do them a disfavor by creating a more open, flexible classroom structure when they are not ready for it. Student preparedness is something worth considering.

Building this type of open classroom environment requires looking at student engagement. In order to succeed, students must be willing to interact with their teacher without shyness or fear of peers. They must be interested enough in the lesson to answer a teacher’s questions, and to ask significant questions without direct prompting. In other words, student need a sense of autonomy, and freedom to instigate interactions with an instructor.

For this study, the research is focused on comparing genders in the area of interaction with the instructor. Does gender have an impact on the level of freedom that students possess to engage with their instructor? Typically, male students are thought to be better at math and sciences, but an article from Psychology Today by Daniel Voyer says that girls, in actuality, are stronger in all academic subjects, including math and science. This is a more recent discovery, and Voyer goes on to give several possible explanations for this shift. Girls today have more success in academic environments than girls do, so the hypothesis for this study is that girls will be more interactive with their instructor than boys.

To test this, five diverse classrooms will be observed, and the number of “instigations” of an interaction with the instructor from students will be tallied, and studied by gender.

Definitions & Methodology

Defining “Instigation”

For the purposes of this study, an “instigation” must take on a narrow definition, as each observation needs to adhere to the same criteria. An instigation is when a student chooses to interact with their instructor, but only under the following conditions.

  • An instigation HAS occurred when a student asks the instructor a question, whether by raising their hand or by beginning to speak, or when a student responds independently to a question addressed to the whole class.
  • An instigation HAS NOT occurred when a student is selected by the teacher to respond to a direct question, since this is not the student’s choice, nor when a student responds to a question addressed to to whole class when the entire class is expected to answer the question, since students are expected to answer as a group.
  • When tallying an instigation, a follow-up response from the same student on the same topic is not counted.


Defining “Classroom Discussion”

In each classroom, there have been “class discussions” in which students are expected to interact with the instructor. Other times, it would not be as appropriate for a student to instigate interactions with the instructor. For instance, during the observation, the class may have been working in small groups while the teacher roams the classroom. In most of the classrooms studied, students were expected to wait for the teacher to check in with their independent work before interacting with the teacher. The statistics in this study are isolated to only the minutes during a class discussion or lecture, in which students are expected to provide feedback and interact with the instructor often, but not during other classroom activities such as group- or independent-work times. The minutes during which interaction with the teacher is not expected or allowed have been excluded from the study.

A Note on Talkative & Bilingual Students

In each class, one or two students of mixed genders seemed to make more instigations than most other students. These “talkative” students were given tallies because their contributions followed the criteria for making instigations. However, including these students may skew the data.

A few bilingual and language-learning students, including Spanish- and Mandarin-speakers, were sprinkled throughout these classrooms. These students may have been far less talkative than their English-fluent classmates, and may have also skewed the data.

Methodology & Notes on the Data

In each observation sample, instigations were tallied and separated by the gender of the student, in addition to the total number of male and female students in the class, and the minutes of isolated class discussion observed. Two data points were then calculated for each class and gender: “Instigations per Student,” which is how often each gender made an instigation, divided by how many students of that gender were in the class. This makes the data comparable because it eliminates the issue of uneven numbers of males and females in the classroom. The second data set shows the frequency with which each gender made instigations, displaying more and less active classrooms and genders. The “Frequency of Instigations” data set was calculated by dividing the “Instigations per Student” data set by the length of each observation in minutes.

Observations & Data

Five different classrooms were studied, totaling approximately 130 minutes of isolated class discussion time, and including 90 students. 62 of those students were female, and 28 were male. Each classroom had its own environmental factors that may have contributed to the instigations observed, which will be discussed in this section. The gender of the instructor may have impacted a student’s willingness to instigate interactions, in addition to the type of classroom, the age of the students, the subject matter of the lesson, or the time of day. Table A in the Appendix contains the data collected from these five classrooms. Chart A and B show a summarization of this data.

Class 1: Kindergarten

The first classroom studied was a public school Kindergarten classroom that had twenty-one students between the ages of 5 and 6, with thirteen girls and eight boys. Their instructor was a female teacher with many years of teaching experience. During their morning class discussion time, approximately 33 minutes long, they read a book, and learned other language arts topics. According to the data, Class 1 had an approximately equal number of Investigations per Student and Frequency of Instigations between boys and girls. Both of these numbers, however, is a low compared to other classrooms in this study. See Chart A and B.

Class 2: 2nd & 3rd Grade

This class was an after-school classroom with thirteen students ages 7 to 8. The instructor was a young female, with a few years of experience. The class had 4 girls and 9 boys, totalling 13 students. At the end of a long day of school, this class taught a review of concepts during homework time, and gave a faith-based lesson from the Bible during teaching time. Overall, about 20 minutes of class discussion was observed. In this class, male students have the most Instigations per Student, and Frequency of Instigations. Both of these numbers are fairly high compared to other classes studied.

Class 3: 1st – 5th Grade

In this classroom, an older male instructor with a few years of experience held a discussion on a Bible lesson for a morning Sunday School service. This class had twelve students, 8 girls and 4 boys. During the 37 minutes of observation, female students had a significantly higher rate of Instigations per Student, the highest rate of all classes studied. The Frequency of Instigations for both genders was low compared to other classes studied, and females also represent the most frequent in this class.

Class 4 & 5: College

Classes 4 and 5 are grouped together because they are similar in environment. They are both classes of college students, with older, very experienced female instructors. Class 4 had 28 minutes of observed classroom discussion, while Class 5 had 13. There were 16 female students and 2 male in Class 4, but 21 female and 5 male in Class 5. These dramatic overrepresentation of females has the potential to the skew the data, but the Instigation per Student levels are moderate, and in both cases males are higher. The Frequency of Instigations for both classes also favor males, although Class 5 is the lowest Frequency and Instigation per Student across all classes studied.


Interestingly, the hypothesis for the study, that females would have higher instigation rates, was not supported by the collected data. In fact, boys had 19.6% higher Instigations per Student and Frequency of Instigations overall (See Charts C & D). This is surprising, given that girls typically do better in school. This is not conclusive, however, because there were many flaws in the research methods used. The sample size was fairly small, especially when stratified into different age groups. The number of minutes of classroom discussion observed was minimal, and there was no control for the changes in the type of classroom environment, the gender of the teacher, and other variables that could have impacted the results. If this study was to be done on a larger scale, it may have resulted in a different outcome.

If we are to simply look at the results of this study, it seems to reject the hypothesis, and says that males may be better suited to the open-ended classroom model than girls, because they are more interactive with the teacher. Girls may perform better in these classic examples of a classroom, while boys can thrive in more social classrooms, where speaking-out is more highly-valued. These results also reflect on the success of implementing bilingual or language learning students into all kinds of classrooms. If boys are truly more interactive in a class than girls, how does that impact a student who is less confident in the language? Boys may learn to speak a language faster in a classroom because they are more likely speak out, whereas girls may learn a writing system faster than learning to speak. This gender divide in classroom interaction can be applied further than just the thoughts in this study, and ESL students are a further consideration that needs to be made.

Before we can begin to predict how boys and girls will adapt to different types of classrooms, more research is definitely needed. We must look further into the strengths of males and females, and be certain that implementing a new classroom structure does not deprive a gender of their ability to succeed. In addition, similar research must be conducted with language-learners. In a classroom culture that values socialization over academic ability, are certain types of students given too much of an advantage, and how can a teacher compensate for that discrepancy?

Works Cited

  • Friere, Paulo. “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” Falling into Theory [:] Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 68-78.
  • Gray, Peter, Ph.D. “A Brief History of Education.” Psychology Today. N.p., 20 Aug. 2008. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
  • Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. “Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?” Educational Psychology Review 16.3 (Sep 2004): 235-66. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
  • Voyer, Daniel, Ph.D., and Susan D. Voyer, MASc. “Gender Differences in Scholastic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychology Today. University of New Brunswick, Psychological Bulletin, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.


Table A Class 1 Class 2 Class 3 Class 4 Class 5
Number of Students 13 8 4 9 8 4 16 2 21 5
Minutes Observed 33 20 37 28 13
Instigations per Student 1.69 1.63 5.50 6.22 7.13 5.75 2.75 3.00 0.19 0.40
Frequency of Instigations 0.051 0.049 0.275 0.311 0.193 0.155 0.098 0.107 0.015 0.031
Sums Female Male
Number of Students 62 28
Minutes Observed 131
Instigations per Student 2.40 3.57
Frequency of Instigations 0.018 0.027


Instigations per Student:

[Instigation Tally Female/Male/Sum] ÷ [Number of Students Female/Male/Sum]

Frequency of Instigations:

[Instigations per Student] ÷ [Minutes Observed]