Our primary explanation is that girls are exposed to several negative gender stereotypes regarding mathematics. Hence, they may perceive themselves as less competent, talented or creative in mathematics even if they perform well in school.
Dr Dénes Szucs
If you have ever experienced a feeling of irrational but pervasive dread when faced with a mental arithmetic question or other mathematical problem, you can rest assured that you are not alone. Mathematics anxiety is thought to affect large numbers of adults and children of both sexes.
New research published in BioMed Central’s open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions
suggests that girls may experience more mathematics anxiety and be more likely to have their school performance affected as a result. The study tested 433 British secondary school pupils from years 7, 8 and 10 and found that 12 per cent of boys and approximately 28 per cent of girls showed higher than average levels of maths anxiety.
The researchers, from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, believe that their findings may explain why just seven per cent of A Level students in the United Kingdom choose mathematics and why relatively few decide to study mathematics at degree level and above.
Here, lead author of the study and senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge Dr Dénes Szucs describes the nature of the mathematics anxiety beast, the different ways in which it affects boys and girls, and what can be done – particularly in schools – to counteract its effects.What exactly is mathematics anxiety, and how does it manifest itself?
Mathematics is usually considered a hard subject. However, it is important to realize that not all mathematics problems stem from cognitive difficulties. A substantial number of children and adults have mathematics anxiety (MA), a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics, which severely disrupts their performance. MA has been defined as "a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in […] ordinary life and academic situations". MA ranges from a feeling of mild tension to experiencing a strong fear of mathematics.
MA is an acquired phobia which is not restricted to test or classroom settings. Rather, it may generalize to various situations with the consequence that otherwise perfectly intelligent and capable persons develop a severe avoidance of situations involving any kind of mathematics and, crucially, do not choose careers involving the study and application of mathematics. That is, MA is an emotional factor which may have a severe impact on individual well being and life-long career choices.
Empirically, MA is clearly distinguishable from general test anxiety (TA). A major review found that about 63 per cent of variance in MA cannot be explained by TA. Hence, MA cannot be considered general anxiety related to assessment; rather, it is specific to mathematics.What techniques did you use to measure mathematics anxiety and how did you control for test anxiety?
We used a slightly modified (child friendly) version of a frequently used and well tested maths anxiety questionnaire, the abbreviated mathematics anxiety scale. This is the shortest valid maths anxiety scale with only 9 items, using a 5-point scale. Importantly, studies have showed that it is just as effective as its longer counterpart.
Besides the maths anxiety questionnaire we also used a classical test anxiety questionnaire from Sarason. We have carefully tested the psychometric properties of this questionnaire and found it highly reliable in our sample. We assessed the relation of maths anxiety and mathematics performance by using a statistical technique called correlation. In addition, we also used another technique called partial correlation to control for test anxiety. This technique considers and removes the effect of test anxiety on performance at the time when assessing the effect of maths anxiety on performance. In addition, we also used other statistical techniques including regression analysis and analysis of variance.What were the main findings of the study? Were they surprising?
The main findings of the study are:
1. Girls and boys perform at exactly the same level in mathematics.
2. However, girls are more anxious than boys specifically about mathematics.
3. If we remove (control for) the effect of test anxiety when assessing the effect of maths anxiety on mathematics performance then we find that the higher the maths anxiety, the worse maths performance is in girls. However, this relationship was much weaker in boys than in girls. In fact, the relationship was not statistically significant in boys. The above suggests that boys on average experience more general test anxiety (which determines their maths anxiety) rather than specific maths anxiety. Naturally, it is important to keep in mind that here we are talking about a 'typical boy'. Hence, there are also boys who have specific maths anxiety, but probably much less than girls. In contrast to boys, girls are more likely on average to experience specific anxiety related to mathematics which negatively impacts on their performance.
It was surprising to see that contrary to their higher levels of MA girls were performing just as well as boys. Given that girls experienced higher levels of MA, it is possible that girls’ mathematics performance was confounded by MA, or the time-limited testing procedure, and the mean score reported in the current study may not reflect the girls’ true mathematical ability. In other words, it might be that the girls had the potential to perform better
than the boys.Why do you think it might be the case that girls experience more maths anxiety than boys?
Our primary explanation is that girls are exposed to several negative gender stereotypes regarding mathematics. Hence, they may perceive themselves as less competent, talented or creative in mathematics (a traditionally male domain) even if they perform well in school.
As we said in the paper, the sex-role socialization hypothesis argues that, because mathematics is traditionally viewed as a male domain, females may be socialized to think of themselves as mathematically incompetent and therefore avoid mathematics. When they do participate in mathematical activities they may experience more anxiety than males.
However, findings may also be affected by the fact that females are usually more willing to admit to feelings of anxiety than males because the expression of emotion by females may be accepted whereas the expression of anxiety in males may be viewed as less acceptable.What kind of strategies could be used to reduce mathematics anxiety?
Currently, the exact emotional triggers leading to maths anxiety are not clear. Hence, it is hard to recommend clear solutions and more research is needed on this subject. However, it is very likely that most cases of maths anxiety originate in primary school experiences. Hence, it is very important that teachers and parents are aware of this phenomenon, emphasize the fun nature of maths and avoid gender stereotypes about maths.
Awareness is extremely important as some negative experiences or emotional attitudes developed during early primary school years may ultimately determine someone's career choices as a teenager and/or adult. This is likely because our interests are seriously determined by motivations which can be strongly affected by emotional factors. Hence, the danger is that some perfectly 'maths capable' children, especially girls, may develop an avoidance of any mathematical activities (especially optional and/or extra-curricular activities) which could otherwise enhance their expertise in mathematics. Such avoidance will lead to diminished mathematical understanding which in turn may lead to even more anxiety and avoidance and, later, the avoidance of maths related careers.