How to address gender differences in the online classroom? Ideas for Teachers

How to address gender differences in the online classroom? Ideas for Teachers

Gender differences are ubiquitous

From pre-school to grad school, there are always a few boys who are so eager to be heard that they are the first to participate. When they speak, they speak loud and long. Often, they simply want to learn the material. Their enthusiasm, however, can and does squelch the voices of those around them.

Note that I am not talking about all boys. However, the tendency remains.

One of my old friends states, “Generally speaking, girls need to be encouraged and boys need to be squished. That is why I prefer to teach girls.” Perhaps “squished,” is too strong of a word. Maybe it would be better to say, “Some boys need to be squished.” Nonetheless, according to “The Confidence Gap,” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, in this month’s The Atlantic Monthly, his interpretation of gender dynamics is not too far off.

The article outlines, in fascinating details, how men tend to have more confidence, even when they lack capability; whereas women have less confidence, even when they have more ability. The confidence of the men results in more risk-taking and participation, which, in turn increases their confidence. Men are often not trying to fool anyone. They have, what Ernesto Reuben of Columbia Business School, calls “honest overconfidence.” They just are confident- whether or not they should be.

Since, women often underestimate their abilities; they participate less, don’t achieve the success that comes with risk-taking, thereby have less confidence and participate even less. It is a ridiculous cycle that starts in preschool.

The remedy? We have to make girls participate

There is hope. When women are compelled to participate, they perform as well as men. This increases their confidence and results in their continued increased participation.

I am philosophically opposed to all coercion, but I can’t figure a way out of this one. When girls are required to participate, they do, and they do as well as their male counterparts. When they do not, everyone is denied their voice. Boys do not get to hear other points of view. The girls do not get to learn as much, as so much of learning is based on interacting with the ideas and materials.

Are Gender Differences as Apparent in the Online Classroom as in the Live Classroom?

Of course they are. I only teach 6 students at a time. With frightening regularity, there are one or two boys who easily and comfortable dominate the conversation- just like in the face to face classroom. I find myself continually prying open space to allow all of the voices to be heard.

How can we hear from everyone in the online classroom?

  1. Maintain order: In the online classroom, we often find ourselves working hard to encourage conversation and participation. While the online classroom offers many of the benefits of the face to face classroom, the streaming audio is not always perfect. Bandwidths can interfere with everyone’s experience. Trying to get students to talk to each other is a big deal. In my novice enthusiasm, I often encouraged and accepted any participation- even when it largely came from boys. With time, I have come to realize that, like in the traditional classroom, conversations need to be structured in order to engage the most students. Yes, that means that sometimes Eager Ed and Confident Ken have to hold their tongues while everyone gets their ideas together, but that is how it is.

  2. Embrace the silence: In the traditional classroom, confident teachers know how to love the silence. It is OK to give everyone some time to think, organize ideas and develop coherent responses to questions. It is OK to wait for participation when the question is hard to answer. The forum is not just for the first one to speak. It was somewhat harder for me to allow quiet in the online classroom. I was afraid that I was boring or losing my students. It is possible that sometimes I am. However, it is worth the gamble. Losing the occasional student is worthwhile if more students learn to speak and listen to each other.

  3. Use a second platform: So that everyone can have her own space to “think out loud,” I often have the students on two platforms at once. I use Google Docs in addition to the WizIQ classroom. When teaching, I ask all of the students to have a Google Doc open and shared with me. I ask the students to respond to questions on their Google Doc. That way, I can quickly peek onto all of their docs, and be sure that everyone is engaged. I also have more insight into who has some really great thoughts ready to go and who does not. I then either call on students or I share what they have written. The field is more level and everyone has a chance to participate. Sharing and interacting are not dominated by the first to speak.

  4. Private message: Make sure your students know how to use the Private Message function in the chat box. I was on WizIQ for more than a year before I noticed it! The Private Message function allows students to ask you a private question, which is helpful if they do not understand something and are embarrassed to admit it in front of the whole class.

  5. Teach your students about the gendered tendencies! Explicitly teach your students about these finding. Have them read “The Confidence Gap”  and discuss the salient points. When females realize that they are likely to underestimate themselves, they are more likely to speak up. When male students see that they are likely to overestimate their abilities and display too much confidence, they are more likely to rein it in.

  6. Have a lesson on online etiquette. Tell your students what is expected from them. I am thinking about making a playful video in which I use silly accents and props to discuss online etiquette. Essentially, I want to teach my students to listen to each other, not interrupt one another and think before they speak. This is not earth shattering information to anyone who has taught for more than 15 minutes, yet kids (and adults) often need direct instruction and practice to internalize it.

  7. Don’t take “No” for an answer. Without being disrespectful, let the girls (and everyone else) know that they are expected to participate. Make it really easy, by using poll questions, private messaging and Google Docs, but be sure that all of your students know that participation is required. It might feel forced. It might feel awkward. Do it anyway.

We are creating a new paradigm for learning.

Teaching and learning online is the way of the future. Let us actively create a future in which all voices are heard.

Image copyrights lie with Ben Javens.


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.

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