How Partner Gender Influences Female Students’ Problem Solving in Physics Education

During peer learning activities in physics class, female students paired with other females learn better than those paired with males.


Grouping students into pairs to solve problems can be a powerful learning tool. Peer learning can motivate students, enhance critical thinking skills, and enable students to transform classroom information into working knowledge. It promotes students to order their thoughts coherently, to understand the ideas and questions of others, and to solve problems through interpersonal interactions. The gender of students’ partners during these activities, however, can sometimes negatively affect their learning outcomes given that females and males oftentimes have different communication styles. Prior research has shown that females are more likely to initiate conversation by asking questions while males begin discussions by ‘‘presenting explanations.’’ In the field of physics, such differences in communication styles may be one of the reasons that female students are often unable to benefit as much as male students from cooperative learning exercises. While there is no clear empirical evidence as to whether female students’ interaction style and problem-solving processes are influenced by their partner gender, it is assumed that the females’ lack of self-confidence in physics will exacerbate underlying communication difficulties in mixed-gender partnerships. This study explores how pairing students based on gender can influence students’ test scores and problem solving skills in physics.


In Shanghai, female high school students paired with male students performed worse when solving physics problems than those paired with other females.

  • Female students who were paired with male students during a cooperative learning exercise were at a significant disadvantage when comparing their performance on a physics exam before and after participating in the group work. Females who were paired with males did significantly worse on the post-test examination than did females who were paired with other females, and on average, scored 2 points worse.
  • Communication differences emerged between men and women during cooperative learning exercises. Females paired with males were significantly less likely than females paired with females to offer problem-related information (67 times versus 150 times) or give suggestions on how to solve the problem (22 times versus 54 times), which amounted to a difference of 22 times versus 54 times during group exercises. Additionally females showed a significantly higher degree of uncertainty and generated more agreements than did their male partners. Compared with their male partners, female
  • All female pairs performed just as well as their male classmates when solving problems and taking tests. Additionally, they demonstrated confidence, put forward their ideas freely, actively participated in problem solving, and cooperated with their partners. Specifically, in the mixed-gender groups, 18% of messages from females concerned strategizing a solution, whereas 34% did from the all-female group; and for the all-female groups, 8% of messages centered on executing on the chosen plan, while only 3% of messages focused on this in the mixed-gender group.
  • While females are more affected by their partner’s gender when working in pairs, male test scores and problem-solving skills are not influenced by their partner’s gender. In the male-male pairings, the only statistical difference appeared in messages around executing a plan. In mixed groups, 11% of males’ messages were about executing a plan, compared to only 1% in the same-gender group.

In short, gender plays an important role in girls’ learning outcomes when they participate in peer activities. Female students are more likely to be active participants in problem solving exercises and excel in test taking when paired with other females.


This study randomly paired high school students to complete a physics assignment in all-male, all-female, or mixed-gender pairs as part of a cooperative learning exercise. While solving the problem, a student could only communicate with his or her partner by writing on a blank piece of paper, which recorded their dialogue. Students took tests on the subject matter before and after the exercise to determine their problem-solving capabilities. Additionally, students’ communication-log sheets  were used for analysis of communication style and of the content of the written messages. This study included 50 high school students (26 females and 24 males) from two 11th grade physics classes in Shanghai.  The average student age was 16.

Related GAP Studies