December 12, 2020 Leave your thoughts

“Math Anxiety” in Teachers and gender stereotypes in their students

By Parisa Navidi

For many of us, facing a mathematical problem – something as trivial as figuring out our share of a restaurant bill – can be a frightening ordeal that many of us would happily delegate to others.

Math anxiety is the feeling of emotional discomfort in response to math or especially, to the prospect of having to deal with mathematical issues. This anxiety appears in various forms and intensities in different people. Importantly, people’s performance in math exams depends not just on their knowledge and ability in math but also overshadowed by such emotional responses.

As a result, whenever math score is a determining factor for in one’s success, those who experiences these negative emotional responses more than others would be at a disadvantage and are likely to end up underperforming relative to their actual abilities. Intentionally or incidentally, people with high math anxiety avoid math and mathematics-related career options. Previous research on gender stereotype in science has shown that math anxiety is more prevalent in women compared to men and some have argued that this stereotype threat has contributed to under-representation of women in jobs that involve quantitative math skills.

To understand how such stereotypes would arise in the course of children’s development, it is useful to ask if a schoolteacher’s level of math anxiety could affect their students’ math anxiety and internalisation of math stereotypes? To answer this question Sian L. Beilock and her colleagues carried out a most interesting study in 2010 in the United State where they investigated the impact of teacher’s math anxiety on their students.

They examined 3 factors:

·        Using questionnaires, they measured the level of math anxiety in 17 teachers of the first and second grade. In the US, more than 90% of elementary school teachers are women. The teachers participating in this study where, accordingly, all female.

·        During the first 3 months and the last 2 months of the school year, math achievements of 112 students (60 girls and 52 boys) who attended these teachers’ class were assessed .

·        For each student, the degree of belief in the gender stereotypes “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading” was evaluated at the beginning and end of the school year.

To evaluate belief in stereotypes, an ingenious method was used: Students heard two neutrally-worded stories. One story was about a student who was successful in math; the other was about another student who was successful in reading. Afterwards, students were asked to draw a protagonist in each story and say whether it was a boy or a girl. If they drew a boy for the first story and a girl for the second one, they were classified as consistent with traditional gender ability tropes.

The results showed that

  • There was no relationship between the female teacher’s math anxiety and the students’ math achievements at the beginning of the school year. This established a reasonable, level baseline.
  • As the year closed to the end and teachers spent more time with the students, girls whose teachers had reported higher math anxiety were more likely to confirm the gender stereotypes.
  • By the end of the school year, girls who had internalised the gender stereotypes obtained lower scores in math, compared to all boys as well as compared to the girls who did not confirm the common gender stereotypes (see Fig. 1 below)

Fig. 1. Math achievement scores (standardized based on students’ age) at the end of the school year for boys and girls as a function of whether they confirmed the common gender ability beliefs

Why were girls affected by their teacher’s math anxiety but not boys?

Children’s curiosity about gender roles and gender salience forms their identity. In addition, around the age of entering school, children are very quick to pick up the social norms about gender stereotypes under the influence of their environment and people around them. They tend to prefer behaviours and beliefs that those norms deem appropriate for their gender. At this age, children tend to choose the same gender as their role model rather than the opposite sex. To interpret their findings (Fig 1) Beilock and her colleagues suggest that the specific impact of female teachers on female students (was probably) due to a similar reinforced gender relation between female students and female teachers.

Two questions remained open: on the one hand, would math anxiety of male teachers affect boys? On the other hand, what other kinds gender stereotypes would we expect to disseminate from having male teachers. Other gender stereotypes such as “girls are better in language and art” are likely to be at work in these situaitons. The study we discussed here did not include any male teachers and left all of these questions open for future studies.

  • Parisa Navidi is doing an MSc in Cognitive Sciences in Centre for Cognitive Sciences, Tehran IRAN.

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