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Monday, September 9, 2013

Do girls have more math anxiety than boys?

Contrary to popular convention, girls don’t actually experience more anxiety than boys do during math tests or math classes. They just think they do. Let me explain.

Thomas Goetz from the University of Konstanz and his colleagues divided math anxiety into two types: habitual--what the student judges to be their overall feelings about math, including their perceived competence in the subject, and momentary--how the student feels at the moment during a math test or class.

The researchers conducted two studies on German children. The first included 584 children (45% female) in grades 5 through 10. The second study involved 111 students chosen randomly from 41 different grade 8 and grade 11 classes (53% female). 
For both groups, habitual math anxiety was self-reported by answering questions like “How much anxiety do you generally experience during mathematics classes?” Students were also asked to rate the veracity of statements such as “I am confident that I can understand even the most difficult content in mathematics.”
Both studies also tested for momentary math anxiety, but in different ways. In the first study, the kids were asked to self-report their anxiety levels just before beginning a math test and twice more during the test. In the second study, kids were asked to assess their level of anxiety at the moment a randomized timer rang during their math classes.
In both studies, girls had significantly more habitual math anxiety and felt much less competent about math than boys did. However, at the moment, during tests and classes, boys and girls showed equal levels of anxiety. Girls also did just as well as boys on math tests.
In other words, as they are sitting in math class, girls not only perform just as well as boys do, but they feel just as comfortable with the material. Yet, if you had asked them an hour before or after class how good they were in math or how much anxiety about math they had, girls would have reported a much higher level of anxiety and much less competence.

There could be many reasons for why this is so. Girls may be buying into old stereotypes about mathematical prowess. They may also feel pressure to be less boastful and more self-deprecating about their abilities than boys do. They may not get the same encouragement in math class or at home despite having the same aptitude as boys. Whatever the reasons, it seems like the only way to correct the discrepancy between the at-the-moment feelings and the habitual feelings is to point out to girls during math classes that they’re doing just fine, and then remind them of that fact later on. 

Goetz T, Bieg M, L├╝dtke O, Pekrun R, & Hall NC (2013). Do Girls Really Experience More Anxiety in Mathematics? Psychological science PMID: 23985576.


  1. I used to marvel at the boys in my elementary school classrooms who LOVED competitive math games, of which there seemed to be many - times when we would race each other in solving long division problems on the board, or games in which the first to say the right answer of a multiplication "fact" won that round, and many others. I hated these games, and many of my girlfriends did, too. I'm sure that there were some boys who quietly hated the games, and perhaps some girls who enjoyed them, but the kids who asked for the games, or who cheered when the teacher announced we would "play" one of those games, were all boys.

    I remember reading or hearing that one barrier to girls doing as well as boys in physics classes was the typical way in which the classes were run; girls taught physics in other, more collaborative and less competitive ways did much better than girls in typical classes.

    I'm just wondering if this gender difference has shown up in studies, and if so, whether it could have any effect on girls' self-concept as math students. I wonder if math classes typically feel more competitive than history and English classes, and if an orientation on speed of computation and problem solving is still prevalent?

  2. Well, in this study, the girls and boys felt equally at ease during their math classes. That probably wouldn't have been the case if the problem was inherent in how the classes were run.