Within any educational framework in addition to affective and cognitive factors, physical and social variables also impact the learning process. The educational environment particularly plays an important role in the attitudes, aspirations, and academic and social development of students. Female students' behaviors and self-perceptions are said to be especially influenced by whether they attend single-sex or coeducational classrooms. The debate over relative efficiency of single-sex education versus coeducation has been ongoing for quite a long time. Generally three major themes can be recognized in research comparing single-sex education and coeducation: achievement, perception, and gender stereotyping.
This chapter will firstly introduce some of the common issues addressed in the single-sex and coeducation debate and explain a number of advantages and disadvantages associated with each educational type. It will then shift focus to gender stereotyping, learners' self-perceptions, and their academic achievement aspects related to single-sex versus coeducation. The chapter is finalized with a brief summary and conclusion from review of the literature.
Single-Sex Education: Pros And Cons
Advocates of single-sex education have point out many benefits that this type of educational environments can offer learners. These advantages range from more gender-tailored instructions, to more pleasant educational settings, to higher self-confidence of learners. Each one is going to be elucidated in more details in following sections.
Gender Distinctive Learning Styles
Debate regarding the welfare of single-sex education is closely associated with addressing different learning styles of males and females. Brain research proceeds to the extent to claim that males' and females' brains are hard-wired differently and that these distinctions can influence their learning process. Several studies that have examined gender cognition have found that boys and girls learn in discrete manners and latch on to concepts at varying order, time, and rates (Sax, 2005). This is probably due to gender-specific brain development characteristics and how each one process information (Gurian, 2001). These physiological differences pave the path to a multitude of learning styles among the two genders.
To exploit their superior communication skills, girls often prefer to take a cooperative approach to learning by taking part in study groups, team works, etc. while boys perceive such social structures as obstacles in the way of accomplishment. Boys generally favor a more competitive and domineering style of learning (Gurian, 2003).
Although there is lack of sufficient evidence to prove that such differences has a significant impact on achievement of either group, supporters of single-sex education argue that adapting proper instructions to students' learning styles is easier when there is more homogeneity within the classroom. Warrington and Younger (2001), state that a single-sex class enables teachers to alter curricular methodologies and materials to better meet different learning needs of students.
Therefore, researchers suggest that boys and girls should be taught through different approaches and strategies which mold their specific learning styles (Mills, 2004). If this is the case, then gender-segregated settings would allow curriculum to fit into students' particular needs and pace of maturation and provide them with more efficient education.
Within every educational framework, various variables exist that can play a part in students' learning and progress. Cognitive, affective, social and even physical traits of any educational setting are among factors that contribute to the quantity and quality of learning. Single-sex settings provide educational environments in which these variables are specially adjusted to serve specific gender-related desires. Males and females show different reactions to class activities, materials, and tasks assigned to them (Sukhnandan et al., 2000). As Millard (1997) notes, boys are swayed by non-fiction reading passages that contain visual explanations of the subject matter while girls are more attracted to fiction and using their own imagination to create illustrations. Further, boys' enthusiasm for a subject can boost their comprehension and results in higher achievement levels. On the other hand, girls' performance is much less affected by their level of interest in a subject (Oakhill & Petrides, 2007). Similarly, in second/foreign language classrooms female learners use considerably more vocabulary memorizing strategies comparing to that of male learners (Cataldn, 2003). Selection of male/female appealing discussion topics, employing the most effective learning strategies, and including competitively or cooperatively structured classroom activities are just examples of possible instructional adaptations that would enhance students' learning.
A study on high school students revealed that girls' test scores increased almost 60 points on average when an all-girl learning unit was established in the school. Richard Durost, principal of Presque Isle High School gave grounds for the necessity of launching such unit by asserting that despite the teachers' strive to accommodate students' different learning styles boys' aggressive approaches often clash with girls' preferred learning techniques (Newquist, 1997). A more recent study conducted by Younger and Warrington (2002) assessed single-sex environments' prospect as a remedy for solving the learning style diversity problem. The study concluded that “single-sex teaching has potential to raise achievement levels in some contexts, but that this potential will only be maximized when differential teaching approaches are systematically planned and explicitly implemented, monitored, and evaluated” (p. 353).
After teacher interview analysis and precise classroom observations at a middle school in America, Herr and Arms (2004) found that lack of professional training in gender-specific learning styles and strategies had weakened instruction. Through a similar study in Ireland, teachers expressed the need for development of professional skills in order to succeed in applying gender-specific learning styles in single-sex classrooms (Gray & Wilson, 2006). These researches support the importance of professional teacher training and development of appropriate application procedures. It is only then that single-sex education is able to offer learning opportunities that do not exist in coeducation (Sax, 2005).
Yet, a number of scholars namely Gurian (2001) argue that although males and females take advantage of different learning strategies, a substantial crossover is present among them. Opponents of single-sex education argue that cognitive differences should not be assumed as the sole basis of students' underachievement. Weld (1997) suggests curriculum and organizational restructuring as an alternative to gender segregation in educational environments. In accord with others (Head, 1985; Hilderbrand, 1985; Lantz, 1985) he claims that coeducation values can outweigh probable advantages of single-sex education.
Enjoyable Educational Settings
Review of the research comparing single-sex education and coeducation reveals that single-sex settings not only uplift academic motivation but also proffer socio-emotional benefits for at least some students (Mael, 1998). It is argued that such educational environments increase gender equity and decrease students' behavioral complications (Riordan, 1990). Studies evaluating these effects particularly address advantages they hold for females (LePore & Warren, 1997). Single-sex classrooms are reckoned to provide calmer educational climates where students are better able to focus on learning with less distraction (Jackson, 2002; Wills et al., 2006). Furthermore, single-sex schools are assumed to have an authoritative educational framework that results in more order and discipline (Trickett, 1982). Thus, students of these schools are predicted to be more attentive and polite (Belcher, Frey, & Yankeelov, 2006).
One major promise of single-sex education is to offer students an experience of genuine equality of opportunities that is said to be unattainable in coeducation. Proponents claim that segregation of sexes in educational settings would minimize discrimination especially against girls. In coeducational classrooms boys usually tend to dominate discussions and interactions and surprisingly are often rewarded by teachers as active participants (Riordan, 1990; Younger et al., 1999). In a study conducted by Sadker and Sadker (1994) on adolescent students, they found that girls were systematically overlooked and excluded from whole class activities. Since much of academic motivation derives from peer and chiefly from teachers' support, boys' domination over the classroom environment and teacher's attention may dissuade girls from attending such classrooms (Beaman et al., 2006). Hence, an all-girl classroom can give females' more chance to practice leadership skills and assertiveness (Barton & Cohen, 2004). In a large scale study in England and Wales, Sukhnandan et al. (2000) reported that girls received more teacher attention in single-sex classrooms because no time was wasted on managing boys' behavior. They felt more confident and comfortable to be members of this society.
An additional premise of single-sex education is to increase students' sense of belonging and provide them with the opportunity to share more communal feelings (Brutsaert & Van Houtte, 2004). In single-sex setting girls are measured against feminine norms and capabilities and not against patriarchal attitudes that usually rule coeducational settings. This is probably a solid reason for females to enjoy these types of environment more. In extensive interviews students agreed that single-sex classrooms were more productive, allowed them to talk more openly, and discuss sensitive issues and concerns freely (Younger & Warrington, 2006). They also mentioned to suffer less bully, inhibition, and harassment regarding their ideas or appearance from the opposite sex. Likewise, Martin's (2001) longitude study concluded that in addition to promoting academic performance, single-sex education allocates a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. Jackson (2002) clearly touches upon this issue when stating that “ they [female students] were not made fun of for getting something wrong and … they did not feel embarrassed for scoring a low mark” (p.417) when placed in an all-girl classroom.
Like every other argument, this argument has also been challenged by its opposers. Single-sex environments have often been accused of over-emphasizing academic work and success and not leaving enough room for socialization and understanding of the opposite sex (Sukhnandan et al., 2000). This might raise a more serious issue; An issue that Rhode (1980) explains it best when stating that “they [single-sex schools] may also erode what some students and faculty of all-male colleges have acknowledged as part of their distinct atmosphere: the tendency to regard women as sex-objects rather than potential equals in men's future business and professional lives” (p.134).
In studies highlighting single-sex education advantages over coeducational settings, increase in students' self-esteem has also been deliberated. Both early and recent researches have argued that females who study in single-sex environments have higher academic and intellectual self-esteem as well as higher overall self-confidence in comparison to their counterparts in coeducational environments (Astin, 1977; Carpenter 1985; Lee & Bryk 1986; Riordon, 1990; Monaco & Gaier, 1992; Belcher, Frey, and Yankeelov, 2006). They also tend to perceive more elevated levels of self-growth (Granleese & Joseph, 1993). Studies elaborating on the effects of educational settings on students' self-esteem propose that sources of self-esteem differ in single-sex classes from those in coed classes particularly for females. A study by Granleese and Joseph (1993) found physical attractiveness to be the main indicator of self-esteem level for females in coeducational schools whereas in single-sex schools the major predictor of self-esteem was students' academic competency. Commonly, female students feel better about their appearance and body image when placed in an all-girl classroom.
Smith (1996) sheds light on the issue from a different perspective by stating that the self-esteem uplift in single-sex educational environments may be a result of students' growth of cognitive self-worth, freedom of action, and liberty in behavior that reign such settings. Girls rely on their skills and believe in their potentials significantly more when they don't have to deal with distractions caused by the opposite sex (Watson, 2002).
It is worth to mention that measuring self-esteem is a multidimensional process which incorporates academic, cognitive, social, and athletic subcategories into it. In a study carried out in Ireland, the researcher measured secondary students' self-esteem in all the above mentioned subcategories. The study concluded that participants from single-sex schools had somewhat higher self-esteem levels in all categories however the difference was remarkable only for the cognitive self-esteem (Cairns, 1990). A case study in New Zealand investigating similar effects also found that girls' self-esteem and confidence increased in single-sex classes. Although this study did not report any achievement gains (Scott, 1991). The bottom line is that by promoting students' self-esteem, single-sex education may better accouter girls to defend their academic capabilities, sense of self-worth, and confidence (Stabiner, 2002).
It is quite obvious that an influential role model can play a major part in enhancing an individual's self-esteem. For girls in particular, realization of same sex achievement or improvement is encouraging (Goldberg, 1968). In female-specific educational environments, girls are exposed to higher numbers of successful female role models. Top students, best athletes, teachers, principals, and administrators are all women. Close observation of females who have successfully integrated feminity and achievement would inspire students to reach out to their latent abilities and set higher goals for their education and future career (Williams, 2007). Thus, single-sex education may provide female students with acknowledgement of their capacity and development of their leadership skills.
However, several international and systematic reviews have failed to establish any consistent and definite correlation between single-sex education and its impact on learners. The key concern about single-sex education research is that studies in this area are usually based on weak foundations (Bradley, 2009). The sample settings and participants are often nonequivalent and there is no proper control for background variables such as learners' socio-economical level, intelligence, and motivation that might affect the results. Therefore, it is not easy to determine whether students' success is solely attributed to attending single-sex schools. As Smithers and Robinson (2006) have put it, the “jury is still out” when it comes to the effects of single-sex education on students' achievement (p.5).
Coeducation: Pros And Cons
Coeducation has been accredited with several advantages for students. Portraying a natural and close to real-life society, providing a setting for viewpoint swap, generating healthy competition opportunities, and improving students' self-confidence and self-image are only a number of the benefits associated with coeducation. However, some critics believe that coeducation may emerge the threat of gender inequity. Following sections aim to illustrate these advantages and disadvantages with more detail.
Socialization & Real Life Simulation
Adherents of coeducation have perpetually stressed social benefits that such environments have for students without detecting any harm to their academic achievement (Dale & Miller, 1972). Most vocal among them is Dale's extensive research on students in single-sex and coeducational secondary schools. He asserts that coeducational settings are viewed as more comfortable, more serene, and friendlier with more opportunities for interaction and socialization by both male and female students (Dale, 1974). Likewise, Noble and Bradford (2000) report coeducation to be beneficial to the development of social skills and understanding of the opposite sex for adolescents.
By providing a more natural social environment, coeducation is also recognized to better prepare students for real life social interactions after school (Dale, 1974). In 2006, a leading Canadian research firm- The Strategic Counsel- surveyed 17,798 Canadian high school students' about their perceptions towards their academic and social experiences at public and independent single-sex and coeducational schools. The survey concentrated on students' reflection upon their general attitudes toward attending school, experiences in the classroom, involvement in extracurricular activities and school life, self images and friendship, and preparing for life after school. This study found that 79% of the students attending coeducational schools concurred that their school environment displays a more vivid picture of what they are going to face in the society once they graduate and therefore can efficiently train them to enter colleges, universities, or workforce.
Perspective Diversity & Competition
In a study investigating gender differences in achievement at 19 English and Welsh high schools, Sukhnandan et al. (2000) concluded that although single-sex education has some advantages regarding students' achievement, sex segregation in educational environments carries a price. They argued that students in single-sex schools miss out on the opportunity to gain perspective of the opposite sex. Educational settings composed of both genders form a richer environment for opinion and viewpoint exchange. Males and females bring along separate strengths and stream of thoughts with them into the classroom. Students' exposure to a diverse and broad range of ideas creates a pleasant social environment which would positively affect the learning quality (Noble & Bradford, 2000). The Strategic Counsel survey (2006), found that 83% of the participants from coed schools were much more likely to discuss ideas with opposite-sex peers than students who attended single-sex schools. This research confirms that girls in mixed-gender schools ask questions and participate in class discussions no less than those in gender-separated schools. While 67% of girls in single-sex schools expressed comfort in sharing ideas, an equal percentage of girls in coed schools declared to communicate their thoughts regardless of opposite-sex peer approval.
Moreover, research suggests that presence of the opposite sex fosters the sense of competition in both genders (Ames & Ames, 1994). Studies suggest that supervised competition among students is academically motivational and accelerates brain development (Ames & Ames, 1994). When students have to compete with each other especially with the opposite gender group to prove their superiority, they tend to focus more on academic achievement (Ames, 1984).
Self-Confidence & Self-Image
In addition to more amenable and spontaneous atmospheres, coeducational environments are described as settings that are more conducive to development of students' self-confidence (Schneider & Coutts, 1982). Results of The Strategic Counsel survey in Canada (2006) shows that students in coeducational schools engage in activities that require collaboration of both genders twice as much as students in single-sex schools do. Consequently, it is easier for these students to make friends with members of the opposite sex by at least 14% comparing to their counterparts in single-sex schools. In fact, 71% of the participants from coed schools indicated that “It is easy for students at my school to find a group that they fit in with” (The Benefits of the Co-educational Environment, p.1). This feeling of belonging will give students a prominent self-confidence and will motivate them to perform their best as part of a group. In the same research majority of students in coed schools claimed that they feel confident to discuss their viewpoints in front the opposite sex group. Growth of self-confidence will help students to be able to manage future social interactions more easily.
Another positive feature of coeducation is that it teaches students to treat the opposite sex respectfully. The respect students and females in particular receive from members of the other gender makes them feel comfortable about their sexuality and proud of whom they are and portraits a vigorous self-image (The Benefits of the Co-educational Environment, 2006). Marsh et al. (1988), supports this assertion in a study conducted in the United States' secondary school students. They concluded that students attending coeducational schools had more optimistic attitudes and higher self-concepts.
While some researchers believe that coeducation can improve understanding and equity between males and females, others have found that in such environments it is more probable for genders to devalue each other which could lead to increase of sexual assault especially against girls (Pavne & Newton, 1990). As research suggests, appearance and physical magnetism is recognized as the number one factor in gaining acceptability and popularity among peers and particularly among members of the opposite sex in coeducational settings (Cairns, 1990). Schneider & Coutt's (1982) study revealed that students in mixed-sex schools often describe their environment as placing more emphasis on affection, affiliation, and extracurricular activities rather than order and discipline.
One of the major concerns in education research especially in foreign language classrooms is the effect of students' gender on teacher-student interactions and how coeducation would enhance or hamper this relationship (Duffy, 2001). It is presumed that there is an unbalanced distribution of teacher attention and encouragement between boys and girls in coeducational classrooms. Research suggests that girls are given less opportunity to participate in classroom discussions and receive less teacher support while boys often tend monopolize the class atmosphere (Mahony, 1985; Compian et al., 2004; Mills, 2004). The American Association of University Women's (AAUW) review of more than 1300 study in the area in 1992 confirmed a pattern of regular exclusion of females from active participation in coeducational settings.
Salomone (2006) argues that such behaviors from teachers and opposite-sex peers would demotivate females and drag them to a silent mode.
Multiple classroom observations have disclosed that in discussions or whole class activities, boys are more frequently called upon on and are often permitted to talk longer, ask more questions, and receive more feedback in return (Sadker & Sadker, 1986; Mael, 1998). Webb (1984) investigated student-teacher interactions in coeducational schools and concluded that although girls requested further explanations more repeatedly, their request was not granted as often as those of boys. According to Lockheed (1976) girls talk less, are less assertive, and are less prone to take on leading roles when boys are present. Maccoby (1990) touches upon the same issue and states that coeducation could hinder females' maximum potentiality because they are yielding and easily persuaded in interaction with males and therefore turn to what Parker & Rennie (2002) have referred to as “passive learners”. This retreatment might be due to the danger of opposite-sex humiliation that threatens female students. The fear of being made fun of or becoming a subject of bully because of not knowing the correct answer to a question or not being good at some activity can reduce risk taking and leadership of female students. It is argued that if boys are extracted from the educational environment, girls are more likely to take risks they are too embarrassed to take in presence of boys (Williams, 2007).
There is evidence that females, even more than their fellow male peers, benefit from high levels of support and encouragement. In general, girls are more responsive to teachers' assistance and are more influenced by both positive and negative feedbacks (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). Goodenow (1993) points out the importance of teacher support and warns about corruptive effects of teacher inattentiveness on students' motivation and academic achievement.
Although it sounds ideal to establish equality among genders in coeducational environments, this will not happen effortlessly (Riordon, 1990). A number of studies have recommended raising teachers' awareness of non-sexist approaches as a solution to gender inequity in coed classrooms (Parker & Rennie, 1986). But even if the teachers strive to treat girls and boys equally, the problem remains to be the diverse learning styles between males and females. As mentioned in previous sections, girls and boys learn through different procedures and react differently to curricular strategies. They even tend to take on different roles in group work. While boys usually take the lead, girls prefer to be followers. These differences will manifest more in coeducation. However it is worth to further investigate whether females' lower level of participation in coeducational environments is due to discrimination of teachers' attention or is it girls' innate characteristic to be more conservative and reserved in their interactions with the opposite sex.
Biological experiments have proven discrete development of male and female brain. Over 100 neurological differences is said to exist between brains of the two genders (Gurian & Stevens, 2005; Sax, 2005). Female brains are inclined to develop faster in the left hemisphere which is responsible for most language functions such as grammar and vocabulary whereas male brains develop more in the right hemisphere which is associated with spatial manipulation capacity (Gurian, 2001; Sax, 2005). The rapid development of the left hemisphere allows females to maintain stronger verbal skills at an earlier age (Gurian, 2001). Chazan, and Ting (1993) found that girls even as young as few months are superior in identifying facial expressions and distinguishing sounds. On average, baby girls start to speak one month sooner than baby boys and at one year old are verbally more proficient and are able to produce longer sentences (Smolak, 1986). Furthermore, females are known to employ wider ranges of vocabulary in their utterances than do males and this might mean that “gender differences in early vocabulary growth seem to reflect early capacity differences” (Huttenlocher et al., 1991, p.245). Such cognitive differences can be the beginning of a lifelong supremacy of females over males in communicative skills.
Utilizing new vocabulary-a paramount tool in any effective communication- is clearly vital in learning a new language; would it be the mother tongue or a second language. If females' vocabulary strength continues through the adolescent years, which apparently does, then implications are rather advantageous for females as ESL/EFL learners. “This might lead to the hypothesis that the more intensive communication requirements in a second/foreign language classroom would be favored by females and could be associated with more positive reactions to second language communication, greater motivation for language learning, and stronger orientations toward language learning among female students” (Baker & MacIntyre, 2000, p. 319). This is supported by statistics revealing that females significantly outnumber males in humanities including foreign language studies (Morris, 2003).
In a large-scale study in England, Strand, Deary, and Smith (2006) found no remarkable gap between male and female students' scores in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning tests. Although girls did perform slightly better on the verbal test, this small cognitive difference between males and females in verbal reasoning does not seem sufficient to justify the huge gender differences in foreign language learning. Cliché affiliations of males and females to certain majors of study or activities, on the other hand, can potentially source such differences. Wiens (2006) declares that “the difference between the masculinization of boys and the feminization of girls lies in the models and expectations society provides for each gender” (p. 16). Good or bad, society plays an undeniable role in shaping individuals' identity and categorizing specific actions and behaviors as acceptable or unacceptable. These inculcations gradually turn into stereotypes which right or wrong become indicators of measurement. For example, girls are stereotyped as being better communicators, readers, and writers while boys are stereotyped as being better mathematicians and engineers (Whitehead, 2006). Gender stereotyping can constrict educational and occupational choices, limit talents, reduce motivation, and cause academic anxiety which all affect both males and females negatively (Sax, 2005).
Much debate has been going on about positive or negative impacts of single-sex and coeducation on the issue of gender stereotyping in schools. Advocates of both educational types argue that each environment helps diminish gender stereotyping.
Coeducation supporters argue that sexiest attitudes reduce when boys and girls are educated together and consequently stereotype boundaries would shiver (Riordan 1990; Tyack & Hansot, 1990). Similarly, Harris (1986) believes that mixed-sex education could introduce students (mainly females) to unconventional fields of study and even career opportunities which would inspire them to pursue non-stereotypical positions. However Harris's findings did not ascertain if either coeducation or single-sex education decreased gender-related stereotypes. In a study on primary school students, Rosenthal and Chapman (1980) concluded that coeducation does in fact lower stereotypical beliefs about sex roles.
In contrary, proponents of single-sex education claim that sex separation in educational environments can crumble stereotypes. A University of Virginia study published in 2003 found that it is much more likely for students in single-sex schools to enter majors that are typically linked with the opposite-sex capability. There seems to be a concurrence among scholars that pressure to heed gender stereotypes is lessen in single-sex settings (Marsh & Yeung, 1998; Elwood & Gipps, 1999; Francis et al., 2003; Sax, 2005; Jones & Dindia, 2004; Brutsaert, 2006; Salomone, 2006). Brutsaert (2006) asserts that single-sex education assists students' exploration of their hidden abilities.
As defined by Purkey (1970) self-perception is “the totality of a complex, organized, and dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds to be true about his or her personal existence” (p. 15). In other words, an individual's self-perception is formed through his/her mutuality, interactions, and experiences with society and its inhabitants (Shavelson, Hubner, & Stanton, 1976) and is particularly influenced by reactions from significant others and attributions of one's own behavior (Marsh, 1993).
Bandura (1986, 1997) summarizes the factors involved in a person's self-perception by illustrating a module (Fig.1). According to Bandura, one's self-perception is highly affected by interactions between personal affective and cognitive traits and environmental conditions.
Personal Factors Environmental
(cognitive & affective) Factors
Figure 1: Bandura's concept of triangular reciprocity behavior
(adapted from Mahyuddin et al., 2006, p. 63)
Marsh (2003) argues that academic self-perception is as well swayed by the environment in which learning takes place. He further exemplifies that if a certain student is put in a high accomplishing class, he/she is more likely to consider himself/herself as being below the average level while if the same student is surrounded by low achieving peers, he/she would perceive himself/herself as superior.
Most studies conducted in this area concur that students discern single sex and coeducational environments as distinct. A number of studies have found that coeducational schools are believed to be more communal and friendly. Some students may prefer to attend such environments because they want to understand or attract the opposite sex or perhaps because they feel that single-sex schools are too disciplined and orderly. In his study, Trickett (1982) found that both male and female students regarded single-sex schooling as more authoritative and more academically oriented. However, Strein (1993) has warned about the negative effects of students' high levels of social self-concepts on their academic self-perception. He offers the figure below to establish the interrelationship between the two.
As it can be interpreted from the illustration, Strein asserts a counter relationship between students' social self-concept and their academic self-concept. This implies a threat of coeducational environments since they tend to put more emphasis on socialization.
In a study comparing single-sex and coed secondary schools, Granleese and Joseph (1993) found that girls in single-sex schools were less concerned and less critical about their own appearance and social status among classmates. They concluded that lower concentration on sociality could be a predictor of higher academic achievement levels. Likewise, Lee and Bryke (1986) claim that young women in single-sex educational environments benefit from higher degrees of self-perception as well as higher ranks of perceived cognitive competency (Cairns, 1990). Riordan (1990) obtained similar findings in his study on Catholic female high school students in America. A more recent study conducted by Cuddy (2000) also measured students' self-perceptions in single-sex and coed high schools and drew alike conclusions as more dated studies. Although apparent evidence exists to support students' supreme self-perceptions in single-sex educational environments, many of these studies have been criticized for their shortcoming in proper control for preexisting variables in students' personal and behavioral characteristics and even inequality of the sample educational settings under study ( Marsh, 1989, 1991). For instance, Cuddy (2000) compared participants from public coed high schools with Catholic single-sex high schools. This lack of conformity between the two groups of educational institutions might shed some doubt on the validity of the findings. Marsh's own study (1989), found no academic or attitudinal ascendancy for single-sex secondary school students and even recognized coeducation to improve students' self-perceptions (Marsh et al., 1988).
One common approach to evaluate students' self-perception tolerance is studying participants who have shift from single-sex schooling to coeducation. In this manner, three longitudinal researches not only found no decline in students' academic or social self-concepts after amalgamation but also concluded that coeducation could affect their self-perceptions positively (Marsh et al., 1988; Smith, 1996; Jackson & Smith, 2000).
Beside the studies which have drawn a certain conclusion for or against one type of education, a number of studies have not found any significant differences between self-perceptions of students who attended single-sex and coeducational schools (Lee & Bryke, 1986; Marsh, 1991; Lambert, 1998). In a study on secondary school students in Belgium, Brutsaert and Bracke (1994) concluded that students' self-perceptions were not affected by the gender organization of schools.
Self-perception also plays a major part in the second/foreign language learning context. Individuals' self-concept is probably most periled in second/foreign language classrooms than in any other field of study (Horwitz et al., 1986). “Language learners' self-perception of target language ability is one of the important factors which may affect acquisition of the language” (Takahashi, 2008, p.39). Each successful or unsuccessful performance of the second/foreign language learner is likely to challenge his/her self-perception as a competent communicator. These self-perceptions can also affect learners' standpoint of the target language and the learning process and therefore enhance or hamper learners' performance and achievement accordingly (Horwitz et al., 1986). It will not come as a surprise to claim that females with brains more developed in communicative skills, forearmed with a broader domain of vocabularies and language functions, and more affectionate and capable of expressing feelings would feel more comfortable in a second/foreign language classroom. Obviously, the high level of self-confidence resulting from such superior advantages would boost female learners' self-perceptions in language learning.
An additional factor that can trigger learners' willingness to communicate in second/foreign language classrooms is their perceived communicative competence. Communication competence is defined as “the individual's ability to properly process information in such a way that communicative behaviors occur in some orderly, rule-governed way” (Selers & Stacks, 1990, p.46 as quoted in Baker & MacIntyre, 2000, p.315). It is argued that while high perceived communication competency can enhance learners' willingness to communicate, poor perceived communicative skills can draw them back from active participation (Baker & MacIntyre, 2000). McCroskey & McCroskey (1988) have defined self-perceived communication competence as an individual's own assessment of his/her ability to communicate. However, Baker & MacIntyre (2000) argue that in this evaluation “it is not the individual's actual skill that counts; rather it is how they perceive their communication competence that will determine willingness to communicate” (p. 316). This means that a learner might feel highly competent when in fact he/she is not whereas another learner's low perceived competency despite his/her actual higher skills could prevent him/her from displaying his/her skills.
MacIntyre, Baker, Clement, and Donovan (2002) conducted a study on Canadian adolescents and found that girls had higher self-perceived communication competence in English and French. In a study conducted on similar sample population, Smith (1997) found that girls are more willing to participate in class discussions than boys. Tannen (1990) on the other hand points out that despite the general assumption of females being more verbal than males, this pattern is reversed as they grow older and enter university or join the workforce. At the end it is important to note that although enthusiasm to communicate is categorized as a personal characteristic (McCroskey & Baer, 1985), the context's environment and atmosphere strongly impacts the individual's willingness for communication (McCroskey & Richmond, 1991).
The debate on advantages of single-sex education has often addressed academic benefits that this type of education holds particularly for females. There is a body of evidence that supports the assertion that single-sex education improves students' academic performance (Riordan, 2002; Taylor & Lorimer, 2003; Mael et al., 2005). As reported in the American Educational Research Association annual conference (2009) in San Diego, females in single-sex educational environments are found to be more academically oriented than their counterparts in coeducational environments.
Hamilton's (1985) research on high school students in Jamaica concluded that sex segregation in educational settings helps both males and females to perform considerably better in school. Another contemporary large-scale study revealed that females who attended single-sex schools took education more seriously, were more academically inspired, and achieved higher academic levels accordingly (Lee & Bryk, 1986, 1989). Following similar footsteps but sampling a different population- Hispanic and African American female students-Riordan (1985, 1988) asserted the role of single-sex education in elevating students' academic achievement.
However, research on whether single-sex education has positive effects on students' achievement has not always gone so smooth. Many studies in the area have obtained inconsistent and occasionally contradictory results. Some studies have initially found some academic advantages for single-sex education but when results were calibrated with preexisting and background variables, differences were no longer remarkable. This implies that students' better performance in single-sex environments is not solely and necessarily due to their presence at such environments. One possible justification for academic benefits of single-sex education is their selective procedures in admitting students. Single-sex schools tend to enroll students from high social and economical ranks. Thus, students who get into such schools are very likely to possess higher socio-economic backgrounds and higher previous achievement levels comparing to those in coeducational schools (Marsh, 1989). This primary advantage can strongly count for the achievement differences between single-sex education and coeducation. Once such preexisting background variables are controlled for, the academic differences between single-sex and coed schools often vanish (Finn, 1980; Steedman, 1985).
Another explanation for potential academic advantages of single-sex schooling is related to school types which are sampled in a research study. As mentioned in earlier sections, researchers often conduct their studied in dissimilar single-sex and coed schools. When Robinson and Smithers (1999) made a distinction between public and private schools and compared the effects of single-sex education and coeducation within each school type separately, they found no academic performance differences among female students who attended all-girl schools and those who attended coed schools. They further concluded that females' higher achievement was more associated with the schools' efficiency, quality, reputation, and selectiveness rather than its gender organization policies. Bell (1989) too has claimed that the schools' degree of competitiveness and elite is a key predictor of students' level of performance.
When background, socio-economical, and ability variables were properly controlled for, majority of studies found no significant academic gap between students in single-sex and coed environments (Steedman, 1985; Marsh, Smith, Marsh, & Owens, 1988; Marsh, 1989; Daly & Shuttleword, 1997; Robinson & Smithers, 1999; Harker, 2000; Jackson & Smith, 2000; Yates, 2001; Yates, 2002). Despite her earlier confirmation of academic benefits for single-sex education (Lee & Bryk, 1986, 1989), Lee has denied existence of any systematic pattern of positive effects of single-sex education on students' achievement in a more recent study (Lee, 1998).
In reassessing the data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (1988) LePore and Warren (1997) found no statically notable difference in test scores of female students at single-sex and coed schools. Macfarlane and Crawford (1985) compared students in single-sex and coeducational high schools and concluded that although there were some attitudinal differences, no achievement gains was attributed to single-sex schooling. Studying over 5,000 secondary school students in New Zealand revealed significant primary academic gap between students in single-sex and coed schools, however, when proper modification of interfering factors was carried out, this gap disappeared (Harker & Nash, 1997). Very similar conclusions were drawn from Harker's study (2000) on high school students in England. In a longitudinal study, Riordan (1990) found that both male and female students in single-sex schools scored higher on standardized cognitive tests but further concluded that practically all the gap was a consequence of academic-oriented policies of the single-sex schools. Howard and Sansted (2003) and Ferrara (2005) are among other studies which have rejected the assumption of superior academic achievements in single-sex educational environments.
Nevertheless, there are a number of studies that have found significant academic differences in favor of single-sex education even after controlling for background, prior attainment, and school type variables. By applying a multilevel modeling, Spielhofer et al., (2002) compared academic achievements of a huge number of single-sex and coed school female students throughout England and found that female students at single-sex schools were by far ahead of their peers in coed schools in all levels. Another large-scale study in Nigeria also revealed that girls in single-sex public schools did better on tests than those in coed public schools (Lee & Lockheed, 1990).
In the second/foreign language context, learners' oral performance which is commonly referred to as the “speaking skill” is considered the main indicator of achievement and proficiency. This is probably because communicative skills best equip learners for engagement in direct and face to face interactions. Dörnyei (2005) states that the quality of how learners' cognitive, affective, and situational variables combine could predict their ultimate achievement and performance. Another major touchstone which can strongly affect language learners' oral performance is individual personality traits. Each learner's personality characteristics and preferences determine his/her reaction to the learning environment and their choice to take active participation in discussions or to remain silent (McCroskey & Baer, 1985; Ehrman, Leaver, & Oxford, 2003). However, little research has been conducted to establish a relationship between personality traits and second/foreign language learning oral performance (Dewaele & Furnham, 1999). Situational factors such as the classroom environment, the learning atmosphere, learners' interest in the subject matter, familiarity with the discussion topic, and purpose of the activity can also influence second/foreign language learners' willingness to communicate (Bailey, 1973; Bickerton, 1975; McCroskey & Richmond, 1991).
Assessing the quality of oral performance of second/foreign language learners encompasses a variety of concepts. They are coiled and closely interrelated with each other throughout the learning process with no sequence of priority. The below figure better illustrates the oral performance hierarchy.
Intended Use and Interpretation
(adapted from Foreign Language Performance Descriptors, Illinois State
Board of Education, 2002, p. 7)
Each concept develops as the learner progresses in the second/foreign language.
During the past decade, the Council of Europe has put together a guideline for describing and evaluating proficiency and achievement level of learners of second/foreign languages. This guideline is known as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR). “In November 2001 a European Union Council Resolution recommended using the CEFR to set up systems of validation of language ability” (retrieved from Wikipedia). In this instrument, a table is provided in which learners' language competency is divided into three main levels and two subcategories for each one. The six reference levels (see tables 1&2) are designed to guide learners and teachers in planning and assessing the language learning progress and also indicate what a learner is expected to be capable of doing regarding the speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills at each level. This framework is becoming widely accepted as a criterion to measure learners' language proficiency level in many developing countries (such as Iran) outside Europe.
Review of the literature reveals that conclusions drawn by different researches about relative effectiveness of single-sex education and coeducation have varied from decade to decade. Some studies assert a number of perceived benefits for single-sex education (especially for females) while others espouse clear advantages for mixed-sex educational environments. Coeducation is discerned to better develop students' social skills and prepare them for the real world by familiarizing them with diverse stream of thoughts and prompting their competitive spirit whereas single-sex education is believed to address students' specific learning needs more properly, provide them a pleasant learning atmosphere in which they gain enough teacher attention and self-esteem and consequently reach higher academic levels. Although most studies concur that students perceive single-sex and coed settings as distinct, supporters of each educational type argue in favor of its stereotypical and self-perceptional effects.
However, there is very little solid evidence to substantiate these claims and findings regarding superiority of single-sex education or coeducation are often related to schools' selectivity and students' individual differences. Thus, research in this area is currently inconsistent, inconclusive, and subject to multiple interpretations (Mael et al., 2005; Riordon et al., 2008).
Yet, a closer look into the single-sex versus coeducation debate arouses some ambiguity. For instance, why do some studies result in obvious advantages for single-sex schooling while others report insignificant differences between students' attitude and achievement at sex-segregated and mixed-sex educational environments? One probability might be the diverse educational structures of the countries in which the research has been conducted. As Byrne (1993) has point out sufficient caution must be employed when incorporating findings from other countries into policy or practice. It sounds logical to claim that in countries where single-sex settings are a minor sector of educational environments (United States, Canada, and most western countries) such settings would be more likely to offer worthier opportunities in a distinct learning environment and thus turn to an elite sector for education and consequently attract students from higher ranks of socioeconomic and/or intellectual levels. In other words, the academic or perceptual superiority of these settings might be more related to their uniqueness rather than to their gender-related structure. In most middle-eastern countries (Iran in particular) on the other hand single-sex education is considered as the main educational framework policy and therefore a similar justification might be applicable for coeducational environments in such countries. Since most of the research examining the effects of single-sex versus coeducation have been carried out in western or far-east countries, a cogent investigation of such effects in countries with different educational structures appears necessary.
Additionally, these influences have been paid very little attention to in the second/foreign language learning field and close to none regarding adult learners. As mentioned earlier in the literature review, many studies have argued that female students do not receive equal attention from teachers and adequate chance to speak up in coed classrooms and thus incline to take on submissive roles and hand leadership to males. Nevertheless, none of these studies have investigated students' classroom interactions as a variable to count for this complex pattern of results. Such assertions need to be further explored in second/foreign language learning settings. As Willet (1996) complains “Why has the TESOL profession taken so long to examine gender? Whose stories are being told in our research?” (p. 344). Vandrick (1996) also expresses concern when stating that “Now we need to find out which research results apply to ESL students and classrooms” (p. 16).
Understanding what situational factors help learners become more proficient communicators is instrumental in developing environments that promote second/foreign language learning. Thus, this study tends to shed some light to the issue of single-sex versus coeducation ESL/EFL classroom settings in Iran.