Students Writing In Higher Education

A number of studies have looked to see whether or not male students write differently from female students in English university examinations. Here, there are two particular genres: course-work essays done over time, and essay-examination scripts done under pressure of time. The findings for either genre are not particularly convincing. Studies in both situations have found that women do better than men in some situations, and men do better than women in others, but in both genres there seem to be more similarities than differences (Hartley et al, 2007). The majority of these studies have involved small sample sizes and used examination marks as the criteria for concluding that men do better than women or vice versa. Nonetheless, one aspect sometimes discussed in this context is whether or not men are more assertive in their examination essays than women (e.g. Robson et al, 2002). In these studies, the wording of the essays has to be examined.

Here, the approach taken has been to examine essays for differences between men and women on various selected measures (e.g. emotional words, numbers, personal pronouns, etc.). Usually, this has been done by counting these features by hand for the different sexes. Such complexities tend to reduce both the numbers of students and essays involved, and the lengths of the texts that are sampled. In addition, different authors have selected different features to discriminate between the writings of men and women, so that the results of the studies are not always comparable.

Today, however, computer-based counting measures can be used. These newer techniques, using much larger samples and a greater variety of measures, allow one to look more quickly and more reliably for differences between the writings of men and women. As noted in Chapter 1.1, the computer program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) for example, calculates the percentage of words used in any one text in any one of seventy-four different linguistic categories. Furthermore, again as noted in Chapter 1.1, some of these separate categories can be grouped — for example, into emotional words (e.g. 'happy', 'sad', 'angry'), self-references (e.g. 'I', 'we') and cognitive words (e.g. 'realise', 'think', 'understand'). Unfortunately, LIWC has not been used in many studies of academic text, although there have been some (e.g. Hartley et al, 2002; Hartley et al, 2003; Rude et al, 2004). Again, few sex differences have been found in these studies.

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