New research from England finds that girls show higher levels of mathematics anxiety than boys, and that this distress is related to diminished performance on math tests. Even so, the study found no gender differences in math achievement, with the researchers suggesting that girls may well have outperformed boys were it not for their anxiety.
I found this research especially interesting, given that just recently I examined a mix of assessment data suggesting that, at least in the United States, girls trail boys in both math and science achievement. One possible reason cited for the apparent STEM achievement gap is “stereotype threat,” an anxiety that occurs when people feel they may be judged by a negative stereotype. Some research suggests this anxiety can lead to worse performance on tests.
The new study by researchers from Oxford and Cambridge universities examined 433 British secondary school children (ages 11 to 16). They were given separate questionnaires to report math anxiety (and test anxiety), and then took custom-made math tests intended to be suitable for their age range and fitted to the content of their school curriculum.
Although both boys and girls reported experiencing anxiety, the study found that girls on average showed higher levels of it. And in one difference from most other research, the researchers say, they sought to control for more general test anxiety.
The study was published online yesterday in the journal, Behavior and Brain Functions.
The researchers defined math anxiety as “a state of discomfort caused by performing mathematical tasks [that] can be manifested as feelings of apprehension, dislike, tension, worry, frustration, and fear.”
The study says math anxiety warrants attention in the classroom, and that prior research suggests that it first develops during the primary school years. The researchers also note that prior research has indicated that math anxiety may well discourage some individuals from pursuing advanced studies and careers in math-related fields.
For more about the study of math anxiety, check out this recent EdWeek story by my colleague Sarah Sparks.
Also, a recent EdWeek Commentary examines the issue of math anxiety and timed math tests. In fact, it’s generated quite a debate in the comments section below the commentary.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.