Teacher anxiety influences girls view of mathematics

It appears that some young girls struggling with mathematics may be picking up on a lack of confidence in their female teacher. But the same research also shows this effect is far from guaranteed and can be outweighed by strong role models at home.

Before going further, it’s very important to note that the study, conducted by psychologists at the University of Chicago, used an extremely limited study group: seven female teachers and 117 first and second grade students. That certainly means the results could be grossly distorted by many factors.

The psychologists looked at how confident the teachers felt about mathematics (first and second grade teachers teach all subjects to their class so are not necessarily experts), whether the students believed in the idea that girls are weaker than boys at mathematics, and how well they performed in tests.

The results appeared to show a pattern that if a teacher is anxious about mathematics, her female students are much more likely to believe boys are better, and in turn perform worse in tests than both girls who don’t believe there is an inherent difference, and boys. Among boys, the confidence of the teacher didn’t appear to have any effect.

It’s worth noting that the same psychologists have carried out much larger studies across a wider age group and found that overall there is no significant difference between the mathematical abilities of the genders.

The good news from the study is that only some of the girls taught by “anxious” teachers believed in the gender divide and performed poorly. The researchers didn’t have enough detail to discover why some girls were affected and others weren’t, but speculated that whether or not mothers and older sisters appeared confident with numeracy might counter the effects of an anxious teacher.

The full study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

[Picture courtesy of Flickr user WoodleyWonderWorks]

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