Male and female college students' learning styles differ: an opportunity for instructional diversification.
Sex differences (Psychology) (Research)
Learning, Psychology of (Social aspects)
College students (Health aspects)
College students (Psychological aspects)
Sex differences
Keri, Gabe
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Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: Sept, 2002 Source Volume: 36 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 310 Science & research; 290 Public affairs
Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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Several extant studies have demonstrated that females and males learn differently. In general, the studies on males' and females' learning differences have concluded that more females are relational learners, whereas more males are independent learners. Using Canfield's Learning Style Inventory (1988) more males indicated a preference for applied learning styles (i.e., using every-day-life experiences as a basis of learning), whereas females preferred abstract (i.e., where copious reading assignments are required, learning materials are organized, and instructors' demonstrate knowledge). The results provide validation for diversifying instructional styles to address the learning needs of students.


Individual differences in learning and achievement continue to present challenges to educators and researchers alike. During the late 60's, Cronbach and Snow (1969) postulated that individualizing teaching to the needs of learners improves learners' satisfaction and achievement. Using their Aptitude Treatment Interaction Theory (ATI) the authors argued that teaching methods differentially affect students' learning because teaching methods place varying demands on learners and account for learners' achievement. Interpolations from the ATI theory have resulted in multiple ways of examining teaching and learning from left and right brain emphasis (Bancroft, 1995), cognitive styles (Messick, 1984), learning strategies (Butler, 1994), to even personality styles (Cooper & Miller, 1991). Despite the extension of learning styles, studies on individual learning differences argue essential dichotomies exist amongst students, even in terms of males and females vis-a-vis learning styles (Pettigrew & Zakrajsek, 1984).

Although performance expectations of instructors do not vary as much in terms of students' learning, researchers interested in individual differences have consistently expressed a need for instruction to emphasize variant aspects of learning (Ristow & Edenburn, 1984; Claxton & Murrell, 1987). Psychologists interested in learning efficacy have also examined cognitive-information processing abilities (i.e., memory) in moderating individual learning differences (Just & Carpenter, 1992), reasoning (Tirre & Pena, 1993) and academic achievement (Engle, Cantor & Carullo, 1992). The most compelling argument from most of these studies so far is that retention of content information is key to learning success, irrespective of learners' characteristics beyond those that are intrinsic.

In recent times the focus on students' learning characteristics embrace rather a gestalt approach, where learners' characteristics are associated with indices of learners, including learning intelligences (Gardner, 1993). Gardner argued that students' styles are indicative of forms of intelligences. The main thrust of recent epistemologies on learning styles suggests that methods of instruction emphasize differing modes of learning such that the connection between instructional efficacy and student achievement becomes inseparable (Dunn, Deckinger, Withers & Katzenstein, 1990). The question to ask is whether academic achievement is a function of matching instructional and learning characteristics. While differences in learners provide instructors with a concrete framework for achieving instructional effectiveness, there is a continuous debate as to whether there are male and female properties that can further differentiate students' learning style preferences (Knight et al. 1997)

For example, Dwyer's (1998) reported that trait/context communication apprehension significantly relates to learning style preferences for females. Dwyer' study recommended removing hierarchical classroom barriers in terms of classroom organization, or forms of threats that have the potential of invalidating females' learning efficacy, independent of course content. Lundeberg et al. (1994) concluded that there were significant differences in the confidence of undergraduate males and females to test-item response, and argued that the differences was both contingent on the learning context and as well the domain being tested.

Mann (1994) examined the development of women and girls within a hierarchical power structure relative to the development of their self-esteem, and general academic performance in certain subjects. Mann reported that faced with several challenging learning conditions such as instructor bias and passivity, and institutions that destroy friendship networks, females were less likely to exemplify their learning styles in subject areas such as math and sciences. The author, therefore, encouraged teaching techniques that place more emphasis on collaboration and hands-on learning, as well as recommended textbooks that depicted females as authors of science books and originators of novel scientific discoveries.

Picou et al. (1998) examined the learning styles of 187 Hispanic students, and concluded that the males emphasized more abstract/sequential styles, whereas the females stressed more concrete/random styles. Realizing that many faculty members tend to teach from the vantage point of their own styles fomented overtime, the authors suggested faculty varying their instructional styles to accommodate students' varied learning needs.

Simpson (1995), for example, raised an important point about his study in which he found that males tended to be more field-independent than females, and yet more females outperformed their male counterparts. The question is, "What possibly accounts for females' academic achievement other than observed learning style differences between males and females?"

Efficacy of teaching notwithstanding, studies on learning styles have provided mixed results concerning college males' and females' learning styles. The purpose of the current investigation was to determine whether males and females in college differ in reference to their learning styles. The question vital to this investigation was as follows: Do the learning styles of college males and females differ?



A convenience sample of 693 students from a Mid-western university and a community college participated in the study. Of this number, 50.5% were females and 45.5%, males. 86% were of traditional age (17-23 years), and 10% were characterized as non-traditional (24-up). 85% were Caucasian, 1.3% African American, 2.5% Chicano, 6.2% Asian, 3% Native American, and 2% other. The average age of the students was 25.


Canfield's Learning Style inventory (1988) was used. Canfield's inventory is a self-report questionnaire of 30 attitudinal items. The items describe modalities of students' preferred learning styles. Participants ranked their responses for each item on a four-point ipsative scale, ranging from (1) for most liked choice, through (4) least. The instrument has eight subscales, representing conditions for learning (e.g., peer, competition and independence), four subscales dealing with areas of interest (e.g., numeric, qualitative, and people), and four modes of learning scales (e.g., listening, reading, direct experience).

Canfield's learning style inventory includes additional items for which students predict their final grades in a course (A, B, C or D). Canfield (1988) reported both alpha and test-retest reliabilities of the instrument as ranging between. 87 and .97. For the current study, the computed reliabilities regarding this sample were found to range between .39 to .86 with a majority of the scores for the respective subscales falling between .67 and .85.


There were 25 classes involved in this investigation. At the university, instructors from Engineering and Rhetoric were contacted to allow the last 10 minutes of their class time for students enrolled in their classes to participate in the study. At the community college students from Data Processing, Criminal Justice, Psychology, English and Social Science courses participated. The faculty members administered the surveys to students; however indicated to students not to feel obligated to participate in the study. Thus, those students who did not want to participate were free to leave (as was true of the University students). On average students spent 10 minutes to complete the inventory.

To avoid duplication of student participation, however, those students who agreed to participate in one class were exempt from participating in another class from which data was later collected. Specifically, the Canfield's learning style inventory was administered in the middle of a fall term to grant students an opportunity to be exposed to varying instructional styles, and to be better able to express their own learning style needs.


Chi-square statistic performed to compare males' and females' learning styles indicated that significant differences exist between males and females, [chi square] (8, N=585)=50.68612, p< .0000). More females than males demonstrate strong preferences for the social/conceptual learning style (27.1% to 13.0%). Females are more of the conceptual learning style type than males (12.3 % to 7.5 %). Further more females than males demonstrate a proclivity for independent/applied type (15.9% to 8.4%).

Regarding male preferences, more males showed preferences for social/applied learning style type (14.6% to 7.6%), applied (10.7% to 3.85%), and independent/Applied (10.4% to 4.3%) in accordance with Canfield's typologies. Results of the analysis are illustrated in Table 1.


In general these results suggest that more males preferred applied learning style, whereas females', conceptual. The current results were consistent with the Pettigrew and Zakrajsek's (1984) finding that females preferred organization of course materials, copious reading assignments, and knowledgeable instructors, whereas more males preferred pragmatism in learning, or "hand-on" learning tasks. However, the results of the current study contradicted the results of other studies in which females demonstrated preferences for concrete experience and males, abstract conceptualization (Philbin, et al. 1995). Perhaps, it is plausible to suspect that differences in the results of studies on learning style of males and females reflect rather on fundamental definitional differences, respecting the foci of learning style instruments; that is, with respect to the areas of learning dimensions under examination. For example, where Philbin et al., used Kolb's definitions, the current study adapted Canfield's.

On the basis of Canfield's interpretations of his learning style categories, one could ask the question of why more females than males preferred conceptual learning style to applied. According to Canfield, conceptual learners tend to enjoy copious reading assignments, prefer organization of course materials, and instructors who are knowledgeable. Knowledgeable instructors, however, must be efficient and proficient users of language, and as equally versed in the subject of instruction. On the other hand, applied learners prefer "hand-on" experiences or assignments that applied to day-to-day activities.

The results of the current study presupposes that more females do not prefer "hand-on" learning tasks, or draw on their personal every-day life circumstances to inform their learning. For males, however, more males are not as organized, and do not prefer copious reading assignments, and perhaps indifferent to whether instructors are knowledgeable. For both student populations, effective instruction will be the one that anticipates the individual learning characteristics of students in a class.

Nonetheless, could it be inferred from males' pragmatic and sharing attitude about learning causes females to feel reluctant to share personal experiences that add to the subject of instruction?

The question that naturally flows from this line of argument is, why? Are there structures, situations and conditions within the context of learning that inhibit females from actively sharing personal, and life experience as those experiences inform the teaching and learning process? Or could it be that the presence of males in class conveys to females obvious differences in thought processes, thereby creating dis-empowering learning climate for females? Zelazek (1986) found rather that females in graduate school participated more as compared to their male cohorts. In addition, Zelazek's study unveiled that males were more avoidant in their classes. In the light of conflicting evidence regarding females' learning preferences, it is to be supposed that the learning environment must cater to both males and females in co-ed classrooms such that females' voices are heard as distinctly as males'?

Allen et al. (1987) examined instructional strategies that matched individual learning styles regarding students' gender, communication avoidance behavior, and classroom achievement. In this study the authors concluded that, while females preferred collaborative and participative learning styles, they also experienced communication apprehension in the classroom. Question: Do females' classroom apprehensions have something also to do with classroom structure?

For instance, a number of studies have examined variables that mediate inconsistencies in student academic performance on learning tasks, and as well tested major assumptions of a major self-worth theory of student achievement motivation (Covington, 1984a, 1984b). These studies found that significant number of females, relative to males, strove to protect their self-worth. Self-worth theory states that in certain learning situations students' stand to gain by not trying (i.e., by deliberately withholding effort). By withholding efforts, students presumed that academic failure will reflect rather on their lack of effort, thereby protecting their self-esteem. Nonetheless, the issue of differences in learning styles between males and females has been found to predict differential academic performance, and in favor of females (O'Brien, 1994).

Should instructors, therefore, seek to challenge students to incorporate androgynous learning characteristics in order to achieve? Cook (1985) made a compelling assertion that androgynous students tend to achieve higher grades. In accordance with Cook, other studies have substantiated the view that students of androgynous personalities score highest on academic performance indicators (Olds & Shaver, 1980), and also demonstrate efficient use of intellectual ability (Baucom, 1980).

Tannan (1990) argued that in conversations males and females function out of differing conceptualizations of reality, explanatory of many instances of missed opportunities. According to Gilligan (1982) compassion, sensitivity, and managed communication are common to ways by which females interpret reality. If so, then, it is of consequence to know that in the context where such characteristics are not shared, females are likely to feel less expressive, and so might not volunteer personal information that informs the teaching and learning process.

Although males and females use different types of relationships to express social connectedness, Cross and Madson (1976b) discovered that women and men are motivated to social connectedness from varying perspectives. According to the authors, women develop connectedness through intimacy and physical proximity, whereas men seek relationships and enhanced individuation and separation from others through social competition. The extent of the dichotomy between how females' and males' are motivated to form social connectedness, in part, is characteristic of the differences found in the current investigation. The findings of the current study were quite consistent with the conclusions of other studies in which females were found to possess better study attitudes toward education than males (Keri, 1995; Pettigrew and Zalkrajsek, 1984).

As with Pettigrew and Zalkrajsek (1984), the results of the current study indicates that the common interest in terms of learning preferences between males and females is social; that is males and females prefer to work with people, and associate with others on learning tasks. The question is whether it would be helpful for students to be challenged through other forms of learning styles via their unique learning preferences? This way, students are better able to adapt to varying content areas expressive of specific instructional emphasis.


Where males and females are involved in a class, instructors need to realize that disparate learning styles are present. Instructors, therefore, must be encouraged to allow students to work in groups on assignments since teamwork seems to appeal to the learning style needs of both males and females. From these results, instructors need to accept the fact that instruction needs to combine both lectures and group exercises. Thus a singular teaching approach can no longer be perceived as the only conduit for imparting knowledge. In terms of class assignments, instructors need to consider allowing assignments comprising of a reasonable degree of reading, organized course content that applies to real-life situations. This way, both males and females feel encouraged to learn through their preferred learning styles.

In order to effectively measure classroom participation, instructors may have to make conscious efforts to elicit participation from females (as they would with males), particularly considering the fact that this study indicates that females do not participate as well in class. Learning style research indicates that the way instructors teach and interact with their students, and also how students' learn and interact with others affect students' general learning styles (Reiff, 1992). Perhaps, the point here is for instructors to develop relational skills facilitative of students' learning, gender characteristics notwithstanding.

In the absence of the current results, though, instructors could only assume that males and females alike prefer to apply their every-day-life situations to the learning process, as they also would like to have more reading assignments. In which case, female students who complained about the lack of structured reading assignment, or males who were concerned that a given course content did not allow for the application of real-life circumstances, for example, perhaps would have been both taken less seriously.

Students need to be responsible enough to champion the value that inheres in knowing about their unique learning styles. This way, instructors who may be less conversant with the relevance of learning styles could receive education from students who prefer to receive instruction through their individual styles. Further, instructors need to also understand the value in assisting students to be exposed to varying forms of learning and teaching styles to assure students continued success in their academic lives.

Considering the fact that varying course content areas require unique hemispheric emphasis, it is only prudent for students to strive to gain mastery in the use of varying learning styles, and also be willing to adapt to instructional styles, and not to expect instruction in all courses to be designed to fit their unique learning needs. Furthermore, student affairs personnel have a responsibility to assist students to better understand their preferred styles in relation to course elections as part of the academic advising process. Future studies need to observe variations in students' learning styles among institutions and academic disciplines.


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GABE KERI, PH.D. School of Education Indiana/Purdue University
Table 1
Chi-square Distribution Regarding Gender X Preferred Learning Style
Differences According to Canfield's Learning Style Typology

Preferred Learning Styles  Males   N   Females  N

SA                          14.6%  45     7.6%  21
S                           15.6%  48    14.4%  40
SC                          13.0%  40    27.1%  75
A                           10.7%  33     3.8%  10
N                           10.4%  32     7.9%  22
C                            7.5%  23    12.3%  34
IA                          10.4%  32     4.3%  12
I                            9.4%  29     6.9%  19
IC                           8.4%  26    15.9%  44

[chi square] (8, N=585)=50.68612, p< .0000)

Note: Preferred styles refer to typologies of
Canfield's learning styles
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