Archived Voice Articles

Altena explores how women students learn



Director of Residence Life, Sandi Altena recently completed a study in which she explored how female students learn best. Altena explored the experience of female students in a college classroom. She interviewed females in their senior year and faculty whom they identified as “powerful classroom instructors.”

Interestingly, the instructors chosen by the student participants were predominantly female.

The participants in the study described what they considered a powerful classroom. Essentially, they described a classroom that provides “emotional space”: people are aware of each other; they are patient and exploratory in their conversations; they show verbal and physical expression; they speak and listen with empathy; and they are perceptive of others’ feelings. Such a “connected” classroom values intuitive knowing as well as past knowledge and experiences.

Research suggests that these characteristics may be more important to females than males, says Altena. So problems may arise when there are more male than female faculty members employed at colleges and universities.Stereotypical perceptions that many female students have of male instructors complicate the issue. In Altena’s study, female professors were seen as more perceptive and affirming, better able to “read” people, and better able to create an emotionally less intimidating atmosphere. Male professors were considered less perceptive, quicker to bring closure, and less apt to give voice to subjective knowing in their classrooms.

Altena believes that her study is relevant for Dordt College where, as in most institutions, the majority of professors are male and more than half of the students are female. If it is true that women learn better in “connected” classrooms, male professors in particular may want to consider how they can make their classrooms more connected and less intimidating, says Altena.

“Females quickly lose their voice in a dominating setting,” she says. She believes that connected classrooms do a better job of seeing human beings as image bearers of God. “The relationship that is fostered in a connected classroom can become a birthing room for a new social order,” says Altena. Ultimately, she believes, it can give birth to kingdom activists.