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Math Anxiety Gets Fresh Look, Different Twist in New Research

Considerable research suggests that girls are more anxious about math than boys, but a new study dives deeper to distinguish the general anxiety young people report about the subject from what they may be feeling in math class or at test time. It turns out the latter, "real-time" anxiety is about the same for boys and girls, the study finds.

Math anxiety among females has long been of concern because, as the new research points out, prior studies have shown that it "negatively predicts" course enrollment, career choices, and lifelong learning in math fields. This is also connected to the worrisome underrepresentation of females in STEM fields. And the higher degree of math anxiety stands in contrast to research showing that female students typically reach "similar, or only slightly lower," levels of math achievement as boys, the study says.

Researchers from several German universities and McGill University in Montreal teamed up for the project. They actually conducted two experimental studies, collecting data from about 700 German students in grades 5 to 11. In the first study, they compared students' responses to both a questionnaire measuring anxiety on math tests and their "real-time" reports of anxiety directly before and during a math exam. For the second study, they compared questionnaire measures of math anxiety with repeated real-time assessments conducted during math classes via mobile devices.

As indicated, the research findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, found the generalized anxiety in math to be more pronounced for girls than boys. But no gender differences were observed in the level of anxiety experienced while students were in math class or taking a math test.

The study was conducted by researchers Thomas Goetz, Madeleine Bieg, Oliver Ludtke, Reinhard Pekrun, and Nathan Hall.

The good news from this analysis, the researchers say, is that the math anxiety that was observed "can be improved by directly addressing girls' self-defeating cognitions and emotions in mathematics." They suggest, for example, that teachers could inform their female students that their math achievement, as well as their math anxiety in class and when taking exams, do not significantly differ from boys, despite beliefs to the contrary.

The study concludes: "By encouraging girls to not shortchange their potential for success in these domains, the gender gap in perceptions of math anxiety, and the detrimental consequences of girls' beliefs that they experience more anxiety than they actually do, may be substantially reduced."

For more on math anxiety, including research and possible interventions, check out this Storify over at the Inside School Research blog, put together by my colleague Sarah D. Sparks.

Also, for a deeper dive into the question of gender differences in math—and more broadly STEM—achievement, take a look at this Curriculum Matters blog post from last year. I pulled data from a variety of national and global assessments. And what did I find? Some evidence of a STEM achievement gap for girls, but it was not consistent, especially when looking across nations.

Specifically for math, the results were mixed. On the math NAEP (a.k.a. the "nation's report card,"), for instance, the gap was very small. Boys on average scored just one point higher on the 0 to 500 scale. While statistically significant, that difference is dwarfed by the far larger gaps seen by race, ethnicity, and income level. Meanwhile, on TIMSS, or Trends in International Math and Science Study, the data showed girls outperforming boys globally at 8th grade, but no statistical difference in the United States. At grade 4, there was no measurable difference in the global average, but for the United States boys outperformed girls.

What I found striking from another global assessment, PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), which tests 15-year-olds, was that the math (and science) gap for girls was among the largest of any nation tested.

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