Recent Research—Gender Differences Between Student and Teacher Perceptions of Ability and Effort

Winter 1995 Masthead

Del Siegle
Sally M. Reis

The University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

The attention of both educators and the general public has been focused on some of the problems facing girls in school. A report entitled How Schools Shortchange Girls issued by the American Association of University Women (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992) and a new book entitled Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls by Myra and David Sadker (1994) indicates that our educational system is not meeting girls’ needs and specifically mentions achievement scores, curriculum design, and teacher-student interaction as issues negatively affecting girls. Reis (1991) has advocated research that compares the school experiences of gifted girls with those of gifted boys in order to determine if recent changes in attitudes about females may have improved some of the issues facing these groups. This research is an attempt to add to the limited data-based studies available on this topic. In this study, the attitudes of fourth through eighth grade male and female gifted students about their ability, effort, quality of work, subject importance, and grades are investigated as are the attitudes of their teachers toward these areas.

Background of the Study

Students usually indicate that effort and ability are the reasons they achieve or underachieve in school (Good & Brophy, 1986). High-achieving students tend to attribute their successes to a combination of ability and effort, and their failures to lack of effort (Franken, 1988; Good & Brophy, 1986; Luginbuhl, Crowe, & Kahan, 1975). Students who underachieve, however, often attribute their successes to external factors such as luck, and their failures to lack of ability (Ames, 1978).

Boys more often attribute their successes to ability and their failures to lack of effort (Nicholls, 1975), while girls often attribute their successes to luck (Reis, 1987) or to effort (Rimm, 1991) and their failures to lack of ability (Licht & Shapiro, 1982; Nicholls, 1975; Reis, 1987). The academic self-efficacy of young males is enhanced because they believe in their ability, and it is maintained during failures because of their attribution of failure to lack of effort. However, the same may not be true for young females because they may accept responsibility for failure, but not for success (Felton & Biggs, 1977).

Developing a strong belief in one’s ability in the elementary and middle school years is important because “by the end of elementary school, children’s [perceptions]…of ability begin to exert an influence on achievement processes independent of any objective measures of ability” (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988, p. 521). Gender differences have recently been noted in the academic performance of adolescent girls. The standardized test scores of girls in mathematics begin to decline during middle school years when girls’ beliefs about their own ability lessen, and this decline may affect gifted girls in particular. The recent AAUW report indicated that “all differences in math performance between girls and boys at ages eleven and fifteen could be accounted for by differences among those scoring in the top ten to twenty percent” (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992, p. 25).

Teachers may be responsible for the beliefs students hold. As early as first grade, teachers tend to “attribute causation of boys’ successes and failures to ability and girls’ successes and failures to effort” (Fennema, Peterson, Carpenter, & Lubinski, 1990). Pintrich and Blumenfeld (1985) found that “teachers’ feedback about work was a better predictor for children’s self perceptions about their ability and effort than were other types of interactions with the teacher or with peers” (p. 654). Dale Schunk (1984) showed that successful students who received feedback complimenting their ability, rather than focusing on their effort, developed higher self-efficacy and learned more than students who received feedback complimenting their effort.

It has been traditionally reported that girls receive higher grades than boys in school (Achenbach, l970; Coleman, 1961; Davis, 1964). Unfortunately, those high grades may actually negatively affect girls’ self-esteem. As Silverman (1993) has stated, “one factor that clearly undermines gifted adolescent girls’ self-esteem is their belief that high ability means achieving good grades effortlessly” (p. 304). Some students believe that if they must work hard, they lack ability (Dweck, 1986).

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to investigate whether female gifted students viewed the quality and importance of their work, effort, and ability differently than male gifted students. The study also investigated whether teachers perceived male and female students differently with respect to the quality of their work as measured by their grades, effort, and ability in the areas of mathematics, language arts, social studies, and science. Finally, student and teacher perceptions of the role of ability and effort were investigated.


The sample included 5,515 fourth through eighth grade students and their teachers (n=1,223, grade 4 students; n=1,262, grade 5 students; n=1,041, grade 6 students; n=954, grade 7 students; n=906, grade 8 students). All of the students (n=2,709 males; n=2,676 females) were identified as gifted and talented by their school districts. A purposeful sample of 210 schools in 30 states was selected from the Collaborative School Districts (CSD) of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) at The University of Connecticut based on their willingness to participate, availability of appropriate age student population, and a research liaison to gather the necessary data. The Collaborative School Districts are proportionally representative of the student population with respect to socioeconomic levels and ethnicity.

An instrument entitled the Academic Achievement Survey (Siegle & Reis, 1993) was developed and used to gather information from teachers and students about the quality of students’ work, their effort, their ability, subject importance, and their grades in each of the four content areas of mathematics, science, language arts, and social studies. Separate surveys were developed for students and teachers. A 5-point response scale was used to assess students’ perceptions about their ability, effort, subject importance, and work quality in all content areas. Teachers’ perceptions of student ability, effort, and work quality were assessed on a similar scale by teachers who taught the specific content areas to students. Information about students’ grades was also collected on a 5-point scale (A, B, C, D, F).

Each student who was identified as gifted and talented by each school completed a survey. The teachers who were responsible for teaching the identified students in mathematics, language arts, social studies, and science completed a teacher survey for the subject areas they taught.

Data Analysis

BMDP program 4V was used to perform separate Multivariate Profile Analyses of Repeated Measures for the teacher responses and for the student responses. The between terms for each analysis were gender and grade level. Ability, effort, quality of work, and importance were the variates for the student analysis. Ability, effort, quality of work, and grades were the variates for the teacher analysis. The repeated measures were the subject areas of mathematics, science, social studies, and language arts.

Effect size calculations were computed in order to compensate for the extremely large sample size, since even a small difference among groups in a large sample may result in statistical significance. Effect size, the degree to which groups differ on measured variables, is the most effective way to examine results of studies with large samples (Cohen, 1988). The results showed small, but practical, effect sizes.


Results indicated that teachers consistently rated female students higher than male students on effort and the quality of their work. However, teachers rated males and females similarly on their abilities, except in language arts, where they rated females higher than males. Female students received slightly higher grades than male students. Grades for both groups dropped from fourth through eighth grade, and mathematics and language arts grades were lower than science and social studies grades at the eighth grade level.

Female students rated their language arts ability higher than male students. Male students rated their mathematics, science, and social studies abilities higher than females (see Figure 1). Unlike the teacher ratings, male and female students rated themselves similarly on effort. The students believed they worked hardest in science. Female students rated the quality of their work and the importance of language arts higher than male students. There were no differences in how male and female students rated the quality of their work and the importance of mathematics, science, and social studies. Overall, student ratings of ability, effort, quality of work, and importance dropped from fourth through eighth grade.

Figure1 Winter 1995 Article 3

Separate correlation comparisons were made between each of the variates for the teachers’ ratings of their students and the students’ self-ratings. The teacher responses indicated that high relationships existed between both ability and quality of work (r=.81) and between effort and quality of work (r=.80). The student responses were quite different. The students’ responses revealed a high correlation between ability and quality of work (r=.68), but a lower correlation between effort and quality of work (r=.34). These patterns were similar for male and female students.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Females are clearly perceived by classroom teachers as working harder and producing higher quality work than males. Teachers reported a difference in the ability of gifted male and female students only in the content area of language arts. This finding may represent some progress with educators regarding gifted girls’ abilities in the areas of mathematics and science. However, the same positive conclusion cannot be drawn about girls perceptions’ about their own abilities. Gifted boys in this study reported stronger beliefs about their own abilities than did gifted girls in mathematics, social studies, and science. This is an area of concern because gifted girls are apparently still not recognizing their abilities in these areas to the same extent as gifted boys. A key factor in keeping gifted girls involved in higher level mathematics and science courses is their self-perception of ability. Despite some intervention programs which may or may not be implemented in individual schools and more equitable teacher attitudes about females in math and science, gifted girls are still not perceiving their abilities as highly as gifted boys in these areas.

The lower ratings reported for gifted boys in language arts is also an area of concern. Not only do the males perceive language arts to be less important, teachers are also viewing the ability, effort, and quality of work in language arts lower for males. Educators should emphasize the importance of communication skills with male students.

While the teachers in this study viewed ability and effort as being highly associated with the quality of work students produced, students do not share that view. Males and females alike reported a much stronger relationship between ability and quality of work than between effort and quality of work, indicating that they may be putting little to no effort into their work. Students may also be viewing ability as a major factor in the quality of their work instead of understanding that ability, without effort, will not result in the realization of their high potential.

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The researchers wish to thank Nancy Lashaway-Bokina, Siamak Vahidi, Karen Logan, Susan Lindsay, and Cathy Suroviak for their assistance with survey distribution and data entry.


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