How Do Girls Learn Best?

As a new school year begins, we’ve been thinking a lot about how girls learn best. In many ways, this question could be answered by describing what girls’ schools do best. This is because girls’ schools are dedicated to championing the educational and developmental needs of girls.

So how do girls learn best? Here are just a few elements that are critical for helping young women reach their full potential:

Role Models and Strong Mentoring:

Girls need role models to help them become their best selves. Research has found positive female role models are essential for girls to grow into confident women, especially as they choose college majors and career paths that are needed in today’s world.

According to Lucia Gilbert, PhD, at Santa Clara University, not only do female students need mentors, they particularly need female mentors who can model greater diversity in women’s lives today. Her research shows female students, more than males, rated the same-sex mentor’s lifestyle and values as highly important to their own professional development. Gilbert also stresses female students working with female mentors may provide an important antidote to some women’s socialization to defer to men. Rather than being in a relationship of unequal power, in female mentor-female protégé relationships students learn to mobilize their full energies, resources, and strengths.

When a school combines positive role models and strong female mentors, reduced gender stereotyping in the classroom, and abundant learning opportunities, girls thrive.

Girls’ schools send that message to girls every day. Not only do students have a wealth of avenues for self-exploration and development at girls’ schools, they have a wealth of female mentors and peer role models.

Seeing It To Be It:

In addition to mentors and role models, studies confirm girls need examples of female heroes throughout history. In other words, girls must “see it to be it.” Learning about the women who have shaped our world helps girls set their own paths in life. Seeing women’s historic contributions inspires today’s girls.

While women account for 51% of our population, a review of mainstream American history begs the question, where were the women? Women account for only 10% of historical figures in our history textbooks. When girls don’t see themselves in textbooks they learn that to be female is to be less visible.

At girls’ schools, students see stories of trailblazing women every day. Women’s history is infused into the curricula and various aspects of school life to help embolden our girls to achieve their full potential in whichever field they’re drawn to. When girls learn about accomplished women in history they become more aware of the possibilities in their own lives.

Experiential Learning:

Girls are more engaged in learning the “how,” if they also learn the “why.” When trying new things and applying it to what they already know, girls can more clearly see how a particular subject area is relevant to their world and interests. Girls’ schools provide a variety of experiential learning opportunities ranging from internships to community service, study abroad to hands-on research.

Parents and employers are clamoring for an education that teaches students the competencies needed for success in the real world. While real world scenarios can be simulated in a classroom, experiential learning helps girls bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Experiential learning also provides the conditions that are optimal for girls to learn by engaging them in the learning process. The skills gained through experiential learning – having to problem solve in unfamiliar situations – help students develop into self-directed, life-long learners.

Girls’ schools don’t just offer equal opportunity, but every opportunity.

Collaboration:

Girls’ schools focus on the development of teamwork, which research shows girls prefer, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). According to the Center for Research on Girls, studies have identified several benefits of collaboration for women in STEM: more confidence in their solutions, combating negative stereotypes that technical work is solitary and competitive, higher quality work produced in less time than when working alone, improved understanding of course material, improved performance on exams, and increased enjoyment of activities.

The world is desperately seeking to plug the leaky STEM pipeline from its shortage of women, and girls’ schools are playing a critical role. Girls’ schools lead the way in graduating women who become our nation’s scientists, doctors, engineers, designers, and inventors. Girls’ school graduates are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology and three times more likely to consider engineering careers compared to girls who attend coed schools. Why? Because girls’ schools support collaboration and all-girl classrooms foster female confidence and aspirations.

Developing a Growth Mindset:

The terms “fixed” and “growth mindset” relate to one’s belief in their abilities. According to Carol Dweck, PhD, students with a fixed mindset “believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.” Alternatively, in a growth mindset, students “believe their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.” It comes as no surprise that students with a growth mindset tend to academically outperform their peers with a fixed mindset.

Girls are more likely to have a fixed mindset, especially when it comes to math, which contributes to the persistent gender gap in girls’ interest in the subject. This gap emerges in the middle school years, but studies have shown girls’ schools mitigate the declining interest. This is due in part to classroom collaboration, but also because girls’ schools help students develop a “can do” attitude.  At girls’ schools, students are more likely to take healthy academic risks, learn through their mistakes, and build resilience.

Girls’ schools teach girls to think “even though I’m not able to do it yet, I’ll tackle the challenge.” The result is girls’ school alumnae go into the world with greater confidence in their academic and leadership skills knowing their goals are attainable.

Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment:

In addition to receiving standard written assessments (grades), girls also need to receive qualitative feedback and communication in order to reduce their anxiety. Girls are prone to perfectionism and have a fear of failure. Even when performing strongly in class, on homework, and tests, girls have a tendency to feel more threatened when being evaluated.

Teachers in girls’ schools are acutely aware of these specific anxieties and the need to support girls with one-on-one conversations related to their grades. This type of interaction is also vital to developing the student-teacher relationship and can often shine a light on how a student is relating to the subject matter. When too much emphasis is placed on just the quantitative grade, girls are inclined to equate that with their self-worth, which can diminish the love of learning.

To be successful, girls need more than just a feeling of support. That support must translate into actions geared toward student success. Nearly 96% of girls’ school students report receiving more frequent feedback on their assignments and other course work than girls at coed schools.

By focusing on how girls learn best, girls’ schools are centered around girls’ unique learning styles. In so doing, girls’ schools successfully prepare young women for lives of commitment, confidence, contribution, and fulfillment.


Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools