A situation in which the "feminine approach to teaching" works well

Mauri Favaron
Posted September 30, 2013 from Italy

Some days ago I went across an interesting paper:

Southey, Kim and Lynch, Bernadette and Werth, Shalene and Hammer, Sara (2007), "A feminine approach to teaching a large, first year university course: and everyone lived happily ever after!"

published within the 2007 International Women's Conference: Education, Employment and Everything... theTriple Layers of a Woman's Life, 26-29 Sep 2007, Toowoomba, Australia.

You may access the same paper on yourself, just following the link:


In this paper, personal experience made by the authors on the characteristics and effectiveness of a "feminine" way of teaching are examined in the context of a fresh(wo)man course in a business and economy university.

The author intend the "feminine way of teaching" in a very specific meanings, hence my quotation marks. Getting an excerpt is maybe the better way to not add personal interpretation - besides, the authors explain much better than I could be able to:

"The masculine/feminine dichotomy can be described, from a psychological perspective, as the action and achievement oriented, individualistic, competitive, focused and independent 'masculine' versus the expressive, relationship building, intimate, attachment orientated and caring 'feminine'."

Some lines further: "The transference of the feminine traits listed above to the literature on communications suggest that a feminine approach incorporates the disclosure of personal information or experiences, and/or sharing narratives, examples and anecdotes in order to meet the desire to make a connection with the audience. ... Inductive reasoning is also highlighted by ... as a feminine aspect of communication whereas the communicator illuminates facts, incidents or examples to the audience, before drawing a conclusion based on the presented information. Secondly, within the context of teamwork, the feminine aspects are those that are associated with the relational aspects of the team ... which demands 'collaborative and supportive work attitudes'."

As I mentioned the paper has been written in the context of a first-year university course.

I have an experience to share about fourth year university laboratories in the Physics Department, in which the "feminine way of teaching" as intended by the authors did provide valuable results.

As a caveat before to read, neither of us involved as teachers and/or tutors did all what they did spontaneously, just doing the way they felt right to them, the students and the objectives.

I start from the latter: objectives. Because of the way Italian universities are structured, our "physicist-cubs" don't have an opportunity to work on real physical problems large enough to allow them an intuitive grasp of what "doing" physics really is. Rather, they are prepared quite mnemonically in their first years, by means of many frontal lessons and exercises. I hardly could imagine a different way of doing in the beginning, however: the subject is difficult and immensely large, and the very first task students have to engage in is learning the "language".

Because of this, on average students develop the habit of a "very well organized pupil", on the wavelength of high school times: a mainly passive learning style.

That is, they don't "imagine" themselves as physicists (not even prospective). And are keenly aware of this: they see more advanced students and professors performing "creative" work, see clearly they are not doing, and get more and more afraid they will never be.

And then, around the fourth year out of five, the lab comes.

The objective of the lab, them, is in transforming themselves-worried pupils into creative physicists (as I and my friends say, "from cubs to wild predators").

That would not be possible by means of frontal lessons of the traditional way plus some highly disciplined work. At least, not in a short enough time to become productive.

The method we actually follow is to assign a task which is:

  • Significant, interesting and manifestly useful to someone.
  • Close in some way to the research "frontier" (in environmental physics there is plenty of subjects like this).
  • Way beyond the possibilities of a student alone.
  • Yet simple enough that a team>/em> of students can solve.

The actual work occurs in a highly supervised manner, with a quite detailed plan developed before the lab starts. This is necessary, we realize, because they never undertook a real "research" project and may get lost, in the beginning, if abandoned alone. The plan acts as an example and, as far as we've seen, its very exixtsnce encourage students to make their own, and revise the roadmap if necessary.

Cooperation is encouraged, by intentionally assigning sub-tasks which can be completed only by interacting with the other stdents; also, we let them organize as well as they like, which invariably leads to a team in which all people settle spontaneously to the role best suited to their character and abilities (someones writes code, someone ele performs the test, still another works on data). We urge the team to provide a unique presentation of the work, of which any meber talks a part.

I mentioned the teamwork is highly supervised. This takes the form of frequent "meetings" in which one of the teachers provides students with indispensable background information and experience, while discussing with them of the issues encountered during work development.

It is of essential importance that, in this phase, the relationship between teachers and students is close, not "distant" as in first years' lectures.

It works very well.

Average student votes at end of laboratories are much higher than average.

Their involvment is very high, too.

And, most important, they gain confidence in their own creativity and possibilities - often debunking myths about themselves.

Compared to the "sink or swim" approach followed by some colleagues, ours has a much larger "yield" of "alive and craving predators": almost no losses along the way.

We have an only serious "problem": students have "discovered us", and now are coming en masse... ;-)

Comments 2

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Oct 01, 2013
Oct 01, 2013

It seems that there is an increased interest in this approach to teaching due to the failures inherent to the traditional classroom approach where students are predominantly passive listeners. It is encouraging to read your personal account of this approach and its success. I look forward to reading the paper.

Thanks for continuing to enlighten us on the most interesting topics.

Mauri Favaron
Oct 01, 2013
Oct 01, 2013

Janice, dear, how welcome!

As far as I've seen, the word "feminine" is maybe quite restrictive: I've seen many male colleagues using it as the "natural default". (It seems to come more natural to females, however) (it seems me to demand you be not so self-enclosed, which in the field of physics may not be so frequent).

Sure the connection it creates have very many advantages. First, to the Cubs: they feel involved in the "real world of real jobs", and their interest and enthusiasm soars.

But I see it has very positive effects on teachers too. One of the thing I was more afraid was in the beginning were a professor of mine, and a colleague some years older than me, who told and retold the same things for decades. The professor was quite an old man, he wrote the book and repeated it word by word. Enough, I imagined, to lose your sanity ;-) But, well, using the "feminine approach" this does not happen.

Not all professors seem confident adopting this approach, however. I had some pitiful experiences when a student myself...