Subject choice, attainment and stereotyping – what does the literature say?

By Phoebe Surridge
Published 09 Dec 2022

Phoebe Surridge* discusses some insights from the literature on how a student’s gender may impact subject choice and outcomes.

What are the factors that influence subject choice and attainment? This is a question I was keen to explore as part of a series of evidence reviews with colleagues, looking at the potential impact of different student characteristics.

Our initial focus was on gender, before moving on to look at intersections with socioeconomic status and ethnicity in the next phase of the research. We wanted to understand how significant gender differences are across subjects, why this might be the case, and how uptake differences relate to attainment.

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a useful starting point for a global overview of gender gaps in attainment over time. A report published by the OECD in 2015, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, set out to determine why 15-year-old boys were less likely than girls to attain a baseline level of proficiency in reading, mathematics and science, and why high-performing 15-year-old girls underachieved in areas such as mathematics, science and problem solving when compared to high-performing boys. The report’s findings showed that, historically, boys’ attainment was higher than girls, but the trend reversed around the time of the millennium. For the most part, girls’ attainment is now higher than boys, and this is reflected in data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for core subjects. A study funded by the Department for Education also found that female students generally achieve higher total GCSE scores and enter more full GCSEs than their male counterparts.

Impact in the classroom

I was particularly interested to see a research study from the University of Trento making headlines recently. The researchers focused on test results that revealed an inconsistency between standardised exam grades and those awarded by teachers. They found that in Italy, girls typically outperform boys in humanities, languages and reading tests, while boys do better in maths. But the Italian researchers found that when grades are awarded by teachers, girls do better in all subjects. Their analysis also showed that when a boy and a girl were similarly competent at a subject, the girl would typically receive a higher grade. This research study suggested that teachers may unwittingly reward students exhibiting what is perceived as traditionally female behaviour, such as quietness, neatness and being less disruptive.

Our own review of the literature includes findings from international studies suggesting that adherence to traditional notions of gender may impact how students engage within the classroom. In a German study, girls reported more positive attitudes towards seeking help in a classroom environment than boys. Further research on American sixth-graders, suggests that dominance, a trait associated with traditional masculine norms, may also be related to help-seeking behaviour in the classroom, with more dominant boys less likely to seek help from their peers.

Extracurricular influences

Some theories as to why girls generally outperform boys include gender differences in terms of attitude to school and engagement, as well as extracurricular activities such as reading, and gaming/screen time.

The 2015 OECD report suggested that much of the reading gender gap could be explained by the difference in enjoyment in reading, time spent reading and how girls and boys engage with reading. As reading is a vital skill for both learning in general and taking assessments, it is likely that these gender gaps will have an impact on subject attainment across the board.

Research prior to the Covid-19 pandemic suggests that increased screen time is linked to reduced GCSE attainment, with an hour extra screen time each day equating to an approximate drop of 9 points at GCSE. The study noted that boys’ GCSE attainment was lower than girls and also that boys’ screen time was higher, but causality cannot be established.

Our research has shown that girls have higher attainment than boys in many AQA Art and Design specifications. One suggested reason is that arts subjects can require a lot of time spent on homework and preparation outside the classroom in order to obtain higher grades, which is a behaviour often avoided by boys. A report by the Arts Council England points to research showing that girls are more likely than boys to engage in almost all arts activities, both inside and outside of school.

Stereotyping of subjects

Some studies¹ have suggested that teachers’ gender stereotypes affect girls’ and boys’ performance in maths and STEM-related courses in high school and beyond. While girls report lower competency beliefs than boys in maths and science, they appear to perform similarly in sciences and girls perform slightly better than boys in maths (PISA, 2018). However, evidence suggests that boys are more likely to engage in STEM subjects in post-16 vocational education and at university. Many initiatives in the UK over the last 30 years have aimed to raise girls’ engagement with science by promoting female-inclusive education, especially in physics.

In terms of how gender can intersect with race and ethnicity, some studies² have found that girls of mixed ethnicity and Black Caribbean ethnicity are more likely to study STEM A-levels than White girls, whereas Black Caribbean boys are less likely to study STEM than White boys. Among Bangladeshi students, there is a particularly large gender disparity in the proportion of students studying STEM, with just over 20% of Bangladeshi girls choosing STEM subjects at A-level compared with over 50% of Bangladeshi boys.

In 2020, a British Council report found that, unlike other EBacc subjects, languages are seeing a decline in subject uptake and also persistent gender gaps regarding attainment. Research has found that boys have a more negative attitude towards modern foreign languages, linked to perceptions of femininity, their social identity and career motivations.

Assessment preferences: exams vs coursework

Different types of assessment may appear to impact males and females differently. Girls are typically more anxious than boys about exams, whereas boys are more likely to report greater confidence in their ability to do well. Research suggests there are few differences between boys’ and girls’ levels of anxiety over coursework, with both feeling the same pressures in terms of its demands and the volume of work.

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) may also highlight assessment styles that advantage girls over boys. A study looking at uptake and results in the EPQ during the period 2008–2015 found that 19% of girls attained an A* and 82.3% attained at least a C, whereas 15.7% of boys attained an A* and 75.4% got at least a C. The organisational and research skills required for coursework are similar to those required to complete an EPQ. Given that some teachers report that boys struggle more with these skills than girls, it is possible that gender may interact with this assessment type to place girls at a slight advantage.

Further directions for research

It’s clear that a combination of influences in the classroom and at home, as well as different assessment types, play a role in determining subject choice and outcomes. While gender differences in uptake appear to be more stark than those relating to performance, there is certainly scope for future research and development in the area of gender and attainment.

Our next evidence reviews look in more detail at the influence of socioeconomic status and ethnicity on subject uptake and attainment. By sharing our findings with AQA colleagues, we hope to help identify areas where we can offer further support to teachers and deliver on our aim of giving all students the opportunity to realise their potential.

*This research project was conducted in collaboration with former AQA researcher Corina Balaban.

  1. eg Lavy & Sand, 2018; Lavy & Megalokonomou, 2019; Terrier, 2020
  2. eg Mcmaster, 2017



Phoebe Surridge

Phoebe Surridge


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