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
  • Dave

    What if you happen to have a male teacher who does just the opposite? I did, he refered to men as cavemen, and women as the cuase of modern society. I have anxiety when it comes to math.

    Well, that probobly stems fromt the fact that I’m really not a math whiz :)

  • Captain Underpants

    And your grammar teacher told you there was no Santa.

  • Gary

    No one is disputing that the sexes are distinct biologically, but sociologists have shown that many behavoirs and roles we associate with sex vary fromculture to culture, and they are therefore culturally determined. Furthermore, statements like, “Boys are better at math,” may be biologically true on a general basis, but it does not follow that every boy is automatically better than every girl at math. Gender also places value on the sex differences, which biology does not, obviously. To continue the math example, it may be true that biology has given the male brain an advantage in mathematical and spatial intelligence, but the value we place on male forms of thinking over female forms of thinking is societal, and caught up with gender. Everyone is encouraging girls to excel in math and science, but very few people seem to be concerned that boys aren’t so interested in foreign languages sciences or literature. For some reason AMERICA feels the need to oppress boys problems.. and make a big deal of girls. IF THE FEMALE TEACHERS ARE NOT TEACHING RIGHT DOESNT THAT MEAN THERE WOULD ALSO BE A DIP IN BOYS RESULTS AND GRADES?? Couldnt it also mean that Females may be skating by in college and not really learning how to be teachers?

  • Wendy

    Anecdote: All my high school math teachers were female. All of them.

  • Gary

    Id like to see what you would say , about this cause when I was a child All I heard was that girls are more mature then boys, EVERY teacher every parent it was a general understanding between parents and teacher. Does that mean that boys growing up think they dont have to mature cause society already has misleaded them to believe they will never be as mature as a woman? So does that make a excuse to why boys do some things they do?

    This propoganda to hinder boys and bolster girls.

  • Angie

    I have always been DESTROYED by female math teachers, who were bad at maths. So I think the study is not complete. Female math teachers, who are bad at maths themselves do their best to demotivate, bully and put down female students in order to hide their own lack of talents within the area they are teaching. I had one good female math teacher though. She loved maths and numbers were the whole world to her. She had no need to put down any female or male students. I also had male math teachers. They never put any female or male students down and as a matter of fact I was an enthusiastic maths student and good at maths when I had MALE maths teachers and the one female math teacher, who loved numbers so much. I know some people might tend to think now, that I am old-fashioned. I am not. I just dare to suggest, that hardly any women ARE good at maths, which doesn´t mean we shouldn´t give THOSE women a chance. But please, please do free all those poor girl students from bad female math teachers. I know what I am talking about!

    P.S.: Gary hates girls. Oh Gary, get over it. You can date WOMEN now. No girl is going to hurt your feelings these days.

  • Gary

    Angie,
    Very mature response, im happily Married . This is about school and children. I personally had only female math teachers growing up all the way through college. They really took there time with all the students so from my experience, and the outcome of everyones grades in there classes spoke for itslef. Im sure everyone has had there own experiences this study is based on a very small scale of students and teachers.

  • http://www.mathtrench.com Math Problems

    I went to a Catholic school and all teachers were males…

  • susan

    this is not exactly the article’s focus, but – despite a history of straight As and even winning 3rd place in a regional middle school math olympics, I was dissuaded by my mom and high school counselor from taking college-prep math or chemistry in high school, who thought it would be ‘too hard’. needless to say I barely made it when I took chem and calculus together my freshman year of college, and gave up on the idea of majoring in engineering.

    I think it IS good to be aware that, especially when you’re younger, you can be strongly influenced by others’ expectations – even more so for family, role models and advisors.

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