Girls Math Anxiety Not Real
August 27, 2013

Are Girls Really More Anxious About Math?

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

While young girls and boys perform equally well on math tests, previous research has shown girls report being more anxious about the subject compared to their male peers.

However, new research published in the journal Psychological Science found girls are not actually experiencing the anxiety surrounding math they say they are. According to study researchers, previous studies were faulted because they asked to describe perceptions of anxiety instead of objectively assessing stress levels during actual math classes and exams.

To reach their findings, the researchers from Europe and Canada recruited about 700 students from grades 5 to 11 for two different studies. In the first study, the scientists looked at students' responses to a survey measuring anxiety about math exams and self-reported anxiety directly before and during a math test. In the second study, the team examined surveyed measures of math anxiety and real-time assessments taken during math classes through mobile devices.

While some of the findings from the two studies showed girls reported more math anxiety than boys, despite similar achievement levels, reported stress levels taken during math tests and classes showed girls were not experiencing more anxiety than boys in real time.

The researchers suggested lower self-reported math abilities in mathematics may be the reason behind the discrepancy in levels of anxiety reported by girls. The team posited the generalized survey may actually support inaccurate beliefs about female math competence, negatively biasing girls' self-assessments and aggravating their math anxiety.

The scientists went on to say that their findings regarding perceived versus actual anxiety differences could be partly responsible for women not pursuing careers in math-intensive fields.

With a growing need for skilled professionals in mathematical and math-related technical fields in recent years, math anxiety is a serious issue for young people considering their future occupation. A study published last year in the Journal of Cognition and Development indicated these feelings about math can affect students’ performance as early as first grade.

“Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement by changing students’ attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence,” the researchers wrote in their report.

The study, which included both first and second graders, found that 6- and 7-year-olds associate math with stress – including even the highest performing students. According to study author Sian Beilock, the finding isn’t surprising considering working memory is involved in both performing calculations and worrying.

“You can think of working memory as a kind of ‘mental scratchpad’ that allows us to ‘work’ with whatever information is temporarily flowing through consciousness,” said Beilock, a professor in psychology at the University of Chicago. “It’s especially important when we have to do a math problem and juggle numbers in our head. Working memory is one of the major building blocks of IQ.”

The team also found the lowest performing students had no anxiety. The scientists said this could be because they used fingers and toes to count instead of relying on working memory.