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Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement

  1. Jan 27, 2010 #1


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    Did anyone manage to read http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100126/ap_on_sc/us_sci_fear_of_figures" [Broken]? It seems that a new study has shown that if a female math teach is unsure of her own math skills, her female students tend to be more susceptible to accept that boys are better at math than girls, and will also perform lower in that subject.

    The actual paper can be found at the PNAS site, and it is an open access paper:


    One would think that this might have a similar effect in the sciences such as physics.

    It will be interesting to see if the same effect occurs for a subject in which there are plenty of female role models, i.e. if the teacher is unsure of her skills say, in English or history (I can't think of good examples, biology?), would the effect be the same?

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  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 27, 2010 #2
    Don't know about that, 'cause, as the article points out, this may end up leading to a lot of girls never even ending up in physics. So, maybe the ones left don't have anxiety about their field? Also, this effect was seen in elementary school kids. By the time kids get into the hard sciences, they're in high school and there aren't many female teachers for those subjects.
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2010
  4. Jan 27, 2010 #3
    I had heard this in the background on the news when I was making dinner (or was it getting ready for work...) the other day. Seems very reasonable and almost too obvious (as is often the case with these type of things).

    Regarding physics and the sciences: you are probably correct ZapperZ but it is probably a compounding effect since science uses a lot of math.
  5. Jan 27, 2010 #4
    Couldn't they do a similar study for Math anxious male teachers? I mean, it is not like anyone tells these kids that guys are better than girls at maths, is there? I haven't been told that anyhow and it is not like those kids got any access to professorship statistics or such.
  6. Jan 27, 2010 #5
    IIRC, females studying in all female classes perform better than females studying in co-ed classes, however, males perform the same regardless of whether they are in co-ed or uniform gender classes.
  7. Jan 28, 2010 #6


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    I read this paper and found its conclusion rather "alarming" a bit. I'll explain why.

    I've been involved in introducing girls in high school to various aspect of science and science careers for several years. This year will be the 7th year of my involvement. The program tries to get these girls to interact with female scientists and get them to see that, yes, there are female scientists and they are doing well. The program also shows the students various areas of science where they visit various facilities.

    That's where I come in. I introduce them to accelerator physics when they visit our accelerator facility. I describe to them what we do, why we do it, etc.. and this includes our educational background, what our "typical day" is like, etc.. They tend to ask a lot of those kinds of questions.

    So what's the problem? I'm a MAN (at least, I am one the last time I checked). We have no women in our group, and in our division, we only have one female scientist. While we do have female accelerator physicists at the lab, they are all in different divisions. I've asked the organizers of the program if it would be better if these girls were introduced to these areas of science by a woman. The reply I got was that it doesn't matter, and some of the studies they have seen indicated that it isn't significant that these subject matter was introduced by a man.

    Well, this study has kinda changed my mind a bit. I did, in the back of my mind, planned on trying to get one of the female accelerator physicist to either accompany me the next time we have this program, or maybe even thrust her into "center stage" so that these girls can see first hand a female accelerator physicist. But now, with this study, how well she can present the subject matter to the students makes a lot of difference. If she appears to be a bit apprehensive (and it could happen since she will be at a facility that she's not familiar with), then this could backfire. I could do this presentation almost in my sleep since I've done it many times, and I get good feedback each time from both the students and the teachers that accompany them. And the idea of having her simply in a supporting role doesn't sit well with me, because it might simply reinforces the perception that I lead, and the female scientist follow.

    Maybe we just need more study on this! :)

  8. Jan 28, 2010 #7
    I'd share your concern here (with regards solely to getting young women interested in science/math). In my experience, most science and math teachers I had (in the higher math and science courses in high school) were male, so I had no female role models for continuing on in science. Worse, as I progressed upwards, there were low counts of female colleagues (re. the concern about the girls work better in all-girl classrooms).

    However, I'd concur that it's most important that what role models are presented (regardless of gender) are very good (both in their subject matter and more importantly, in conveying the information they do know in a clear and dynamic manner). In my experience, a poor teacher is hesitant to admit what they do not know... and a good teacher is willing to listen (without any gender bias), state that a question is good to affirm the student's thought process, afterward affirming or correcting the students response appropriately and giving further explanation/example (but also looking into it and getting back to the student if he/she does not know the answer). While my major role models (K-12, and even college and beyond) were male, they were very good.

    If you could get a woman to give part of the presentation (or teach) at an equal level, and not IMPOSE on her to do so because she's a woman, that's great. However, I tired of being the "woman in science" that always got chosen to lead tours, etc. (even though I'm really quite social and was quite good at it). I now avoid any "woman in science" brunches, studies, etc. While I at first regretted it, my professional role in science decreased (as the trailing spouse to a previously-tenured administrator) and now I'll probably always have a lesser role (in fact I think our family would destabilize if I were to pursue a tenure-line). On the other hand, I'm at least the most innovative instructor in our department, and my teaching methods are effective (both in terms of "learning gains" and "attitudes adjustments").

    Unfortunately, at the college level, it is virtually too late to have an effect on students entering a STEM field. However, at least a few of my students are going on to elementary and high school instruction... and I hope my teaching is an example to them. Sadly, though it would be amenable to my family life, I've over-degreed myself to return to teaching at the middle- or high-school level (they'd have to pay me at the salary-cap, and most K-12 schools can't afford to hire at that level).
  9. Jan 28, 2010 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    After reading the paper, I call "BS". There's several deficiencies:

    1) What is the correlation between a teacher's 'math anxiety' and actual math knowledge? Could it be that teachers less sure of their own abilities actually know more than teachers who delude themselves into complacency? Also, I would have liked to see more about what the MARS test assesses.

    2) As you correctly point out, there are no controls: what about controlling for the gender of the teacher, controlling for subject matter (reading, for example), controlling for 'anxiety' versus 'knowledge'...

    3) when the student 'beliefs' about gender ability was accounted for, teacher anxiety was no longer statistically significant (fig 1). Not mentioned is the origin of the student's beliefs. The caption is telling:

    "When teacher math anxiety and girls’ gender ability beliefs were simultaneously entered as predictors of end-of-year math achievement, teacher anxiety no longer significantly predicted girls’ math achievement [...] The reduction in the direct relation between teacher anxiety and girls’ math achievement was significant [...] This provides support for our conclusion that teachers’ math anxiety hinders girls’ math achievement through girls’ relatively increased acceptance of traditional gender norms in school." (emphasis mine)

    It's well-known that we like to read things that reinforce what we already believe to be true, this paper is no exception. The last paragraph of the 'discussion' section is proof enough of that.
  10. Jan 29, 2010 #9


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    Typical of Pain 'N the AS$ articles, the methodology and conclusions are rather puzzling. They assessed both math anxiety and math ability of the teachers, but unless I've completely missed it somehow, nowhere in the article does it indicate if math ability was in any way correlated with math anxiety. I would expect it was, but there's no evidence of that. And, as others have pointed out, there were no gender controls. Would the outcome be the same if the students had a male teacher who was math anxious? In other words, was it really a reinforcement of gender roles, or is it possible that the female students are just more perceptive of anxieties regardless of the gender of the teacher? That too would be a very interesting result. I'd also be curious about the opposite end of things... would a girl be better off with a confident male teacher than an anxious female teacher even if actual math ability of the teacher were the same? Or, what if an anxious male teacher were even worse than an anxious female teacher? And, how many first and second grade teachers really aren't anxious about math, regardless of gender? (Where is Tom Mattson? He has a lot of experience with education majors and their math ability, or lack thereof.) They might be anxious about higher math, but are they still competent to teach at a 1st or 2nd grade level?
  11. Jan 30, 2010 #10
    Re: Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement

    Cultural stereotypes do that. It varies quite a bit between regions and countries, but the math-anxious teachers are just re-inforcing messages that the girls are getting elsewhere.

    Anyone who doesn't see the cultural stereotypes really isn't looking...





    Edit: Hmm - I see that some of this was already said. I will leave it anyway.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  12. Jan 30, 2010 #11
    But I was under the impression that this was about kids just starting school, i.e ~second grade when they first comes in contact with maths. I doubt that much of the male nerd stereotype have gone into them by then.
  13. Jan 30, 2010 #12
    Re: Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement

    So you didn't have older siblings or watch any TV at age 6 or 7?
  14. Jan 30, 2010 #13

    Char. Limit

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    It won't happen.

    Studies today are geared not toward knowledge, but toward giving the majority (in other words, women) every advantage they can think of.

    Even though it has been proven (by studies, ironically) that more girls attend college and girls get less disciplinary referrals and better grades than boys, they are somehow still oppressed.
  15. Jan 30, 2010 #14
    With older siblings age is a much larger difference than gender and how much maths do you see on a TV? You might see some strange "scientists" in some kids show, but how would they associate that with the earliest forms of school maths?

    Most studies I have seen suggests that it is the parents and teachers attitude that creates this belief and that in the earliest years females likes maths more than guys do but that this declines over the course of elementary school.
    They aren't doing better than males in all areas, that is the problem. Saying that women and men approach maths differently is blasphemy, but saying that women are better at understanding non verbal communication is just common knowledge.

    What makes maths and physics fun for me is the risk taking, aka thinking for yourself. When you think out an innovative solution you are taking a risk compared to just doing what the teacher says, but just doing what the teacher says is a lot more boring and it also teaches you a lot less. If women are less prone to take risks like this then I wouldn't find it strange at all that they don't like the subject.

    In my opinion the most important aspect if you want to create gender equality is to promote risk taking for women. Safe gets you through life, but risky gets you to the top.
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2010
  16. Jan 30, 2010 #15

    Char. Limit

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    Wait, why do women have to do better than men at all subjects in school? Do you assume, perhaps, that women are intrinsically smarter than men, and thus should do better in all areas?

    Explain your logic as to why men doing better in some subjects is a bad thing, a "problem" that must be "fixed".
  17. Feb 1, 2010 #16
    Re: Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement

    You are looking at it as a zero sum game, which it is not. Why not help everyone excel to the best of their potential?

    More smart people achieving their best is beneficial for everyone in society.

    What I meant was that older siblings (along with parents, teachers, and TV) transmit the assumptions about gender-ability.
  18. Feb 1, 2010 #17

    Char. Limit

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    Making sure that women do better than men in ALL areas of school is not "helping everyone excel to the best of their potential".

    And that's what this is. Don't try to hide it. I don't mind an equal start, but what these people are trying to do is not an equal start. It is an unequal start designed to create an "equal" outcome, and handicapping men in the process.

    Don't tell me I don't have a point at all here.
  19. Feb 1, 2010 #18
    You don't have a point at all here. There are cultural forces at work actively discouraging women from going into hard sciences like math, a theme you will find common throughout history. While you can say that there are certainly flaws in this particular study, as has been pointed out, you are making baseless accusations about what "these people" are trying to do.

    What you seem to be suggesting is that there is a conspiracy to design faulty scientific studies for the sake of elevating one sex over the other in the arena of mathematics. And to what end, exactly? Is it because mathematicians have all the power in the world, making the subversion of male mathematical skills the quickest route to world domination for women? Please explain to me what the endgame of this conspiracy is.
  20. Feb 1, 2010 #19

    Char. Limit

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    Very nice dismissal. I'm almost impressed.

    I'm not an idiot or a paranoid maniac, contrary to your belief. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy to take over mathematics and thus cause women to rule the world. I don't know where you pulled that from. I am reacting to the prejudice against men (I know, burn me at the stake now) that I see today. Not in history, but today. Here are a few samples:

    A husband and wife are getting an angry divorce. Who, to your gut instinct, is in the wrong?

    When's the last time you saw a girl getting hit in a sitcom (you know, those "family shows"?)? Now when's the last time you saw a guy getting hit in a sitcom?

    A girl accuses some men of rape. Should they go to prison? (Think carefully about the Duke lacrosse team here)

    When's the last time a political party restricted possible candidates to only men? Now when's the last time a political party restricted possible candidates to only women? (This one might be difficult: it's the British Labour Party, 2003)

    How much money is spent per year on breast cancer, as compared to prostate cancer? Now how many people die from breast cancer per year, as compared to prostate cancer?

    Did you know that one in four women are raped? So why aren't 750 million men in prison for rape? How many men are in prison for rape? Does it even come close to 1 in 4 men?

    There's more, but I'll have to go look it up. These are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
  21. Feb 2, 2010 #20
    I may have been out of line to imply that you were crazy, but the tone of your earlier posts led me to believe that you might be. I'm sorry about the tone of my first post there, but I still strongly disagree with you.

    I have no gut instinct. Maybe older generations would tend to automatically blame the husband (another expression of patriarchy, ironically enough- assuming that any large event in a relationship must have its root in something done by the male since the female is capable only of passivity), but I have no opinion either way. Marriage is meaningless to me, as is divorce.

    Just going from common sense, I think we can agree that the vast majority of violence against women comes in the form of sexual assault and/or domestic violence, neither of which make for good sitcom fodder. In essence, people don't like watching women get beat up because they are assumed to be weak and in need of protection from men (and our old friend patriarchy pops up once again!). More to the point of what I think you meant specifically, women tend to be involved in much less "casual violence" than men in real life and this is just being accurately reflected on tv.

    If they're found to be guilty after a fair trial based on convincing evidence, then yes. What you're trying to do here is provoke a protective (and patriarchal) response in me along the lines of "Lock that scumbag up without a trial!" Unfortunately, it won't work. As unfortunate as it is, women (and men) can use false accusations of rape to tarnish someone's reputation. Just because some people pull a fire alarm maliciously doesn't mean that we should begin ignoring it when it does go off. What happened to the Duke Lacrosse Team was unfortunate, but they were eventually cleared. I do, however, agree that false claims of rape which are provably false and which have obviously been made for personal gain or in order to tarnish the reputation of someone else should be prosecuted (just as one would be prosecuted for filing any other false police report/perjuring oneself). However, in cases where there is no clear evidence that the report was knowingly made falsely, it would have a chilling effect on other rape victims to prosecute the woman.

    They can nominate whoever they want for candidates. If you don't like that they only put forward women candidates, then don't vote for them. If they start losing elections they'll get the message pretty quickly. Besides, there were almost certainly alternative motives (assuming all the sayings about American politicians hold true for British ones as well). Perhaps the BLP thought that they could get more women voters, or perhaps they thought they would seem more progressive than the other party/ies by doing that. People will do virtually anything to get and maintain power.

    This is just in bad taste. Besides, even the slightest bit of research would reveal statistics like http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27283197" [Broken], which reveals the amount of money spent lobbying for breast cancer research. It's not a plot to ensure that men with prostate cancer die horrible painful deaths, it's just politics. It's not about gender equality or even about curing breast cancer; IT'S ABOUT THE MONEY.

    First of all, the statistic that you're trying to satirize (again, in bad taste) is that "1 in 4 college women have either been raped or suffered attempted rape". Rather than immediately jump to the ridiculous conclusion that you jump to in order to support your pre-ordained conclusion, think about some mitigating factors here. Probably most importantly, "rape" means different things to different people. The legal definition of rape differs significantly from the common image of a lone college girl walking home alone at night who gets brutally attacked and raped. In fact, http://aspiringeconomist.com/index.php/2009/09/11/rape-statistics-1-in-4/" [Broken] required that 4 males witness the alleged rape or else the woman could be punished for adultery).
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