Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety May Give Girls the Arithmetic Jitters

By Smriti Rao | January 27, 2010 10:49 am

girl-mathDoes your first- or second-grade daughter have trouble with math? Her anxiety could be stemming not just from a genuine fear of number crunching but also, a new study indicates, from an anxious female math teacher.

The study (pdf) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that if a female teacher is anxious about math, she tends to pass on that anxiety to her female students. This can make the female students believe they aren’t hard-wired for math like the boys, and cause them to shy away from fully flexing and developing their mathematical muscles.

The findings are the product of a year-long study on 17 first-and second-grade teachers and 52 boys and 65 girls who were their students [Science Daily]. Researchers recruited the female teachers from a Midwestern school district and assessed their level of math anxiety. They also gave math tests to 117 of these teachers’ students and jotted down their beliefs about math and gender at the beginning and end of the year. By the end of the year, the more anxious teachers were about their own math skills, the more likely their female students – but not the boys – were to agree that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading” [AP].

The girls who bought into the math-is-for-boys notion also scored, on average, almost 5 points lower than the boys on the tests. The researchers  noted that the boys weren’t affected by their teachers’ math anxiety like the girls. However, the researchers aren’t sure exactly how the angst was transmitted from teachers to students. Perhaps math-anxious teachers call on girls to solve math problems less frequently; praise boys more effusively; or simply imply that it’s not important for girls to be good at math [Los Angeles Times]. It’s also not clear if a study of male elementary teachers with math phobia would have produced similar results.

The study suggests that math anxiety could have a long-term effect on girls–as the nervousness could prevent them from picking math and science in high school and may preclude them from having certain careers in engineering, science and technology. It also reveals that there needs to be a fundamental re-thinking of how teachers view the subject, as more than 90 percent of elementary school teachers in the country are women and they are able to get their teaching certificates with very little mathematics preparation, according to the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. [Science Daily]. The study’s authors say that teacher training programs should be tweaked to include more math, and that math anxiety among teachers should be openly addressed.

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Physics & Math

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