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Stephen Camarata, Ph.D.

Female, male brain differences studied


5/05/2006 - New research attempting to shed light on the age old question of how male and female brains differ has found that timing is everything.

In a study involving more than 8,000 U.S. males and females ranging in age from 2 to 9, Vanderbilt University researchers Stephen Camarata, Ph.D., and Richard Woodcock discovered that females have a significant advantage over males on timed tests and tasks, particularly among pre-teens and teens.

“We found very minor differences in overall intelligence. But if you look at the ability of someone to perform well in a timed situation, females have a big advantage,” Camarata said. “It is very important for teachers to understand this difference in males and females when it comes to assigning work and structuring tests. To truly understand a person's overall ability, it is important to also look at performance in un-timed situations. For males, this means presenting them with material that is challenging and interesting, but is presented in smaller chunks without strict time limits.”

The findings are particularly timely, with more attention being paid by parents, educators and the media to the troubling achievement gap between males and females in U.S. schools.

“Consider that many classroom activities, including testing, are directly or indirectly related to processing speed,” the authors wrote. “The higher performance in females may contribute to a classroom culture that favors females, not because of teacher bias but because of inherent differences in sex processing speed.” An additional question is whether this finding is linked to higher high school dropout rates for males and increased special education placement for males who do stay in school.

In their new article, Camarata and Woodcock focus on understanding differences in “processing speed” between males and females.

“Processing speed doesn't refer to reaction time or the ability to play video games,” Camarata said. “It's the ability to effectively, efficiently and accurately complete work of moderate difficulty. Though males and females showed similar processing speed in kindergarten and pre-school, females became much more efficient than males in elementary, middle and high school.”

The researchers found that males scored lower than females in all age groups in tests measuring processing speed, with the greatest discrepancy found among adolescents. However, the study also found that males consistently outperformed females in some verbal abilities, such as identifying objects, knowing antonyms and synonyms and completing verbal analogies, debunking the popular idea that girls develop all communication skills earlier than boys.

The researchers found no significant overall intelligence differences between males and females in any age groups.

The research will be published in the May-June issue of the journal Intelligence. Camarata and Woodcock compiled their results through an evaluation of three sets of data collected from 1977 to 2001 as part of the Woodcock-Johnson Series of Cognitive and Achievement Tests.

Camarata is a deputy director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. Woodcock is a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and is also a research professor at the University of Southern California.

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