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September 19, 2013

The Underbelly of Girls’ Math Anxiety

Girls tend to be more anxious about math than boys are, but they perform just as well on tests. What's up?

It's odd that math and science are still considered “boy subjects” by many, given the lack of evidence that males are actually any better than females in these areas. Where males and females do seem to differ is in their attitudes toward math and their opinions about their own math competence.

Everyone experiences performance anxiety in some endeavors, and previous evidence has suggested that girls are actually more anxious about math than boys. Because learning math and science is not just good for general knowledge but good for your brain, a new study set out to understand what seems to behind this sex difference, rather than simply verifying its existence.

Studies like this one, which show that girls and boys not only perform similarly during math tests but experience similar levels of anxiety during test-time, should help erode old assumptions.

Researchers asked 700 students in grades 5-11 about their feelings about math on large and small scales. In the first study, the kids described their feelings toward math in general, as well as how they felt both before and during an actual math test. The next part of the study, using mobile devices to determine how they felt in a moment-to-moment way, asked students to log their anxiety levels multiple times throughout a math test.

Girls reported more anxiety about math overall, but not during the test itself. What was different was how girls rated their own math abilities. Girls felt less competent at math than boys did, even though they performed similarly on the tests.

The German researchers point out that asking sexes to make generalizations about their own competence as a way to gauge math ability can backfire, since it may perpetuate a stereotype (girls being worse at math than boys) that really doesn’t exist.

Looking at actual performance is a much better way to break the stereotype and help girls gain confidence. There’s a lot of work being done to get girls and young women interested in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math). Studies like this one, which show that girls and boys not only perform similarly during math tests but experience similar levels of anxiety during test-time, should help erode old assumptions.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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