Do Girls Try Harder or Work Smarter?

The other day a friend told me that male students outnumber female students two to one in Harvard economics classes, but that the women don’t realize it because the students who show up for lecture are about evenly split. I asked one of my students what she thought was going on. She looked at me funny and said “Girls are Try Hards—Of course they go to lecture more than boys. They spend more time on problem sets and papers and studying for exams too.” Then it occurred to me that I’ve got data—I could see if this really true, at least in my class. What I found was surprising.

My econometrics class is required for all economics majors, and I have almost exactly twice as many male students (99) as female students (46). 107 of these students took a survey on lecture attendance and study habits after the midterm exam. Reported lecture attendance was almost identical between male and female students. Male students watched more lectures on video and report studying more hours per week, but these differences are not close to statistically significant. The amazing part was that male students reported studying substantially more for the midterm exam, and this was almost statistically significant (p=0.12 for a Chi-squared test):

                     Female        Male
  none                  0 %         3 %
  1-5                   8 %         9 %
  6-10                 24 %        30 %
  11-12                29 %        22 %
  13 (all)             39 %        36 %
Average number of
video lectures
viewed:               3.5         4.2
hours studying
per week:
  1-2                  18 %        19 %
  3-4                  55 %        48 %
  5-6                  24 %        22 %
  7+                    3 %        12 %
hours studying
for midterm:
  1-4                  21 %        16 %
  4-8                  50 %        35 %
  9+                   29 %        49 %

If it’s true that male students study more, we might expect to see this extra effort pay off in performance, but average scores on the midterm exam were identical: 78.3 for both groups. Alternatively, male students might study more because they have weaker backgrounds in statistics, but the reported differences aren’t very big and they aren’t statistically significant (p=0.46):

                    Female        Male
How much
material have
you seen before?
  All                  11 %        12 %
  Some                 50 %        38 %
  None                 39 %        51 %

What I think is actually going on is that some male students consider certain activities to be studying (e.g., watching tv while reading the book) that some female students would not. This is difficult to assess with my data, but I do see interesting gender differences (p=0.06) when I ask who students study with:

                    Female        Male
how you study:
  mostly by self       84 %        70 %
  mostly with friends   5 %         1 %
  half and half        11 %        29 %

Suppose that male and female students spend the same amount of time studying together and separately, but the female students only consider the time spent studying alone as “real” studying. This would be consistent with male students reporting more hours, even though objectively, study time is identical.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on with these male female differences, but what is clear to me from the above analysis is that quality of studying is at least as important as quantity of studying.