Exams & Curriculum 2020 exams

Girls vs boys: Does anyone win when exam season is cancelled?

In 2020, with exams cancelled all over the world, student grades were awarded based on coursework, teacher assessment or algorithms. In 2021 there are calls to scrap exams too, as teachers and pupils struggle to cover hours of missed classes and learning opportunities as a result of Covid-19. Mixing up an established system isn’t easy for teachers or pupils. In previous shake-ups, arguments over who would benefit or lose out from a change in type of assessment, and the age-old discussion of male vs. female performance under varying conditions have been hot topics. Would a move away from exams really see either group pull ahead? And would students really benefit from a different system of assessment?

Do boys do better in exams?

Across all subjects, and multiple regions, girls come out on top for academic performance throughout the year, but when it comes to crunch time, the gap often closes. At Cambridge University, a persistent gender gap is present in the achievement of first-class degrees, with a 9.2% difference in favour of men appearing in 2017.  This doesn’t mean that boys are scoring higher grades than girls consistently throughout their education, but it does show that type of assessment truly can impact outcomes for boys vs girls. 

There are multiple theories about why we see these gaps. Back in 2013, Oxford University’s head of admissions controversially said that boys tend to do better in exams than girls because they are more prepared to take risks, whereas girls tend to spend longer thinking about their answers. Other research has suggested that when the stakes are high, boys excel, whereas girls, despite often better performance in the classroom throughout the year, may show performance levelling out as the stakes increase. The jury is certainly still out on the most important reasons for any correlation between gender and academic results, but one thing is for sure, it’s a topic that should continue to be explored for as long as exams remain the passport to prestigious universities and high-earning careers.

Why does it matter?

It’s true that nothing in life can be completely fair for everyone taking part. Finding yourself with a head start and being able to seize the opportunity or finding yourself a step behind and rising to the challenge shapes our attitude to work and can define our ultimate success. However, when consistent patterns show up which may signal that a whole group is at a disadvantage, isn’t it time to question the system? Take the figures from Cambridge University showing males getting more first-class degrees than women. The highest class of degree from a prestigious university can open doors to the most lucrative careers. If these doors are consistently opening to men more often than to women due to the difference in degree attainment, then this serves to uphold gender differences in the workplace. Some research which argues that females perform less well in high stakes exams suggests that an aversion to pressure can also later cause women to self-select out of careers which reward tolerance for pressure, often associated with jobs which tend to also be highly-paid, again reinforcing gender imbalance for many years after leaving education. 

Is exam format the issue?

For years people have argued that coursework favours girls and exams favour boys. Research does back up female strength in coursework with some suggesting that girls excel with this type of assessment because it is based on conscientiousness over a long period, but it’s simplistic to suggest that girls aren’t up to the task of performing in pressurized exam conditions. In fact, research has shown that females are better able to sustain their performance than boys in tests taking over 2 hours. The study showed that in “more than 20% of the countries where male students had an initial advantage in math and science, this gap was completely offset or even reversed after 2 hours of test-taking” and that “the ability to sustain performance might be smaller but is not absent in tests with higher stakes.” 

In the same vein, in their research on GSCE exams, Cambridge Assessment found that “boys performed quite similarly to girls in components that comprised mostly short-answer questions, but girls performed better than boys in those components with long-answer or essay questions.” In other words, the format of the exam can have a noticeable effect on gender performance. 

There are other arguments against exams as a form of assessment, for example that girls may not be able to perform at their best if exams fall during their period. These are important considerations, but do they outweigh the benefits of high stakes end of course exams as a form of assessment? Yes, a model where assessment was purely through coursework could address some issues which could lead to gender imbalance in results at either school or university level. But would it simply have the effect of tipping the scales in the opposite direction, and end up prioritizing female performance over male? 

In addition, a coursework-only, or purely teacher assessed model has other pitfalls. Not only would it vastly increase teacher workload, it would also open teachers up to potential criticism. Many argue that it’s easier for students and teachers to cheat when assessment isn’t under exam conditions, or that conscious or unconscious bias from teachers could skew the results for some students. 

Can one system ever cater for all?

In some ways school is set up to learn about some of the pressures and imbalances of life in a supportive environment which gives you the tools to overcome obstacles and learn to deal with both success and failure in a positive way. Many would argue that real life isn’t about fitting the situation to suit you better, it’s about solving the puzzle of how to make it work for your own goals. Some might say that scrapping exams to address gender imbalances, or minimize stress in the final years of school sends out the wrong signal to teens – that pressure is bad, that gender will define your outcomes, that all systems should be equal to all participants. Whether or not you believe this, getting rid of the current system would undoubtedly be problematic not only from a logistics perspective, but also because in its most basic form, exams remove as much subjectivity as possible from assessment. The person marking your paper won’t know about your background, your personality, your preferences, they’ll judge you on your answer alone. For many that’s a correct, and even comforting way to be judged. But even if these months of academic turmoil caused by the pandemic don’t lead to a full overhaul of the exam system, it’s been invaluable in causing us to question the status quo, to scrutinize the weaknesses in a system which can dictate important life outcomes for candidates, and think logically through alternatives which in normal times would never be considered. For students, teachers and parents who have fought to have their voices heard about some of the issues with a centuries-old system of assessment, this should be some comfort. 


  1. https://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/this-is-the-year-to-take-another-look-at-the-tripos-gender-attainment-gap/#:~:text=In%20every%20year%20since%202000,2009%20(10.3%20percentage%20points).
  2. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/19/boys-better-girls-exams-oxford-university-chief_n_3779200.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAEyNydhM3RHgGaunpffdXI0yY3Wn8MVjiGUBINIBcMBTtiZbtYbie_iGkpcwoIdM-ef23DlDm6wJ2hYmztGrD0zHOpFH9zWpoKyKljkP2IH4LsTqPEVuFN-dPazsMQXhYJzGYxDfBtNh3LDmsEY69vnaBpjfXmWiwCcOUKRGfJLY
  3. http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cp457.pdf
  4. http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cp457.pdf
  5. https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/gender-differences-in-gcse.pdf
  6. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/girls-outperforming-boys-at-gcse-because-they-do-better-at-coursework-31465425.html
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6722057/
  8. https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/gender-differences-in-gcse.pdf 

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