Teaching Math Anxiety

Teaching Math Anxiety

Female teachers may pass their own math anxiety to the girls they teach.


Is math anxiety contagious? I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Young girls may pick up math anxiety from their female teachers. This according to University of Chicago psychologists Sian Beilock, Elizabeth Gunderson, and Gerardo Ramirez. They measured math anxiety in female elementary school teachers, as well as their students' tendencies to think boys are better at math than girls are. Gunderson says that at the start of the school year, the two were unrelated.

But by the end of the year, there was a significant relationship where, the higher the teacher's math anxiety, the more likely the girls were to endorse that gender stereotype.

... And the worse the girls actually performed in math. But boys' achievement and gender attitudes were unaffected. Beilock says more math training for grade school teachers, who are overwhelmingly female, may help reduce this contagious anxiety. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

One of many destructive aspects of stereotypes is their potential to be self-fulfilling. Several studies have found evidence of what psychologists call "stereotype threat"—that subtly reminding people about stereotypes against their gender, ethnicity, and so on can affect their real-world performance in ways that fulfill those negative stereotypes. For example, Stanford social psychologist Claude Steele found that when he gave college sophomores an exam which he called a "preparatory drill," white and black students performed equally well. But when he gave another group the same exam, and instead told them it was an assessment of "innate intelligence," black students performed significantly worse than whites.

This study looks at stereotypes from a slightly different perspective. It's a widely held stereotype that boys are better than girls at math. This can contribute to what researchers call "math anxiety" in female students and even teachers. At the start of the year, Beilock's team measured math anxiety in the elementary school teachers she studied (all of whom were women). They also assessed math performance in the boys and girls the teachers were going to teach. Finally, they measured the students' gender stereotypes about math. One way they did so, for example, was to describe a gender-neutral student who was excellent at math, and ask the kids to draw a picture of the student. At the start of the year, both boys and girls were about equally likely to draw a picture of a male or female math whiz.

At year's end, the researchers again assessed the students. Girls taught by math-anxious teachers had become more likely to show signs of negative stereotyping. They also performed worse on math tests than they had at the start of the year. However, girls who were taught by women with low math anxiety didn't suffer these effects. And boys were unaffected either way.

The study has several implications. First, it suggests that when a teacher is uncomfortable with math, it affects her teaching, even if it's not in obvious ways. Second, it suggests that anxious math teaching selectively affects girls and not boys, at least when the teacher is female. This could be because of stereotype threat, or the fact that kids identify more with same-gender teachers, or a combination of the two. The researchers also were surprised to find that math stereotypes can impact very young children, who haven't spent very much time in math classes.

Beilock points out that math plays a relatively small role in a first- or second-grade teacher's training and education. And although the math itself may be simple, getting young children to understand it is not so easy. So, she argues that more training in teaching math can boost teachers' confidence and stop math anxiety before it enters the classroom.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is stereotype threat?
  2. How might stereotype threat have played a role in the outcome of this study?
  3. Why did the researchers conclude that teachers passed math anxiety on to their female students?
  4. Suppose a follow-up study found that math anxiety in male elementary school teachers had no impact on either boys or girls. What would that say about this study's implications?

You may want to check out the March 1, 2010 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: the physics of superheroes, teaching evolution to children, science in the theater, and math anxiety in girls.

Going Further

For Educators

In the ReadWriteThink lesson Comic Makeovers: Examining Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Media students explore representations of race, class, ethnicity, and gender by analyzing comics over a two-week period and then re-envisioning them with a "comic character makeover."

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