Encouraging undergraduate learning: gender and the rules of engagement

D.M. Dunn & D.M. Chaput de Saintonge

The Department of Medical and Dental Education, St Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital School of Medicine Hospital

The study relates student achievement to perceptions of and interactions with their learning environment. 120 clinical students completed a 9-week clinical attachment. We measured perceived self-efficacy (1) and attribution style on a purpose-designed version of the Attribution-style Questionnaire (2). Social awareness was measured on a shortened version of the Fear of Negative Evaluation scale (3) Anxiety was measured using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression scale (4). At the start, women perceived the world of undergraduate learning to be more pervasively and persistently bad than men (p<0.05) yet scored similar ratings for self-efficacy. Their sense of achievement correlated with how well things are going in the learning environment (p<0.005) and not how poorly, even when they felt they were responsible.

Men, by contrast, showed a high correlation between social anxiety and adverse events for which the feel responsible (p<0.005). However they show no correlation between social anxiety and good events in the learning environment even when they are responsible for them and they are widespread and persistent. These effects persisted during the course. During the course of the attachment both groups improved their self-efficacy but this was unrelated to achievement in subsequent examinations.

Achievement in men was related to their level of anxiety but could not be predicted in women.

Successful learning initiatives will increase women's feeling of self-confidence. Unsuccessful initiatives seem unlikely to have any effect. Our women students are likely to learn by doing things because this is how they increase their sense of achievement. There is no relationship between social anxiety and whether things are going well or badly. These findings suggest that women would be best supported by getting positive feedback about their achievements.

Men's sense of achievement is dominated by fear of criticism and the need to maintain an appearance of competence. They need to understand what is expected of them before they attempt learning tasks. However achievement was unrelated to social anxiety but strongly related to other measures of arousal, an effect not seen in women.

These findings suggest that men require some degree of arousal to make them engage in the learning activities prerequisite for achievement.


1. Bandura A, Wood R. J Pers Soc Psychol 1989; 56: 805-814.

2. Chaput de Saintonge DM. & Dunn DM. The helpless learner: a pilot study in clinical students. Medical Teacher 1998; 20: 583-586.

3. Watson D & Friend P. In: Robinson JP, Shaver PR, Wrightsman LS, editors. 'Measures of Personality and Social Psychological attitudes Vol. 1; New York, Academic press 1969.

4. Zigmond AS & Snaith RP. Acta psychiatr Scand 1983;67:361-70

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