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Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:28

Math: Dread of female teachers becomes Fear for female students

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According to a U.S. study, early elementary female teachers, who are anxious and fearful about teaching mathematics to their students, were found to pass on that dread to their female students—but not to their male students.


The article “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement” summarizes the results of the work peformed by U.S. researchers Sian L. Beilock, Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Gerardo Ramirez, and Susan C. Levine, all from the Department of Psychology and Committee on Education, University of Chicago, in Illinois.

It appears in the January 25, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS article: doi: 10.1073/pnas.0910967107).

The researchers studied 17 first and second grade teachers (12 first grade teachers and 5 second grade teachers) and their students from a large Midwestern urban school district.

Of the students, 52 were boys and 65 were girls. Of the teachers, they had an average of 13 years of experience teaching early elementary students.

Over 90% of elementary teachers in the United States are women (with 91% in elementary grades, and an even higher percentage in early elementary grades).

Because females have been shown to be traditionally “math-anxious”—which negatively affects one’s ability to perform mathematics—the researchers wanted to find out if such anxiety is passed on from teacher to student.

Specifically, they had three hypotheses to test.

Page two discusses these three hypotheses.




The researchers stated these three hypothese in the abstract of their PNAS paper.

These three hypotheses are:

•    “Our first hypothesis was that the more math anxiety a female teacher had, the lower her students’ math achievement would be.”

•    “Our second hypothesis was that this relation would only hold for girls.”

•    “Finally, our third hypothesis was that any relation between female teachers’ math anxiety and girls’ math achievement that did exist could be accounted for by whether girls in these teachers’ classrooms believed in traditional academic gender stereotypes  (i.e., boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading).”


Both teachers and students in the first and second grades were assessed as to their anxiety and fear at performing mathematics and their overall achievement within the field of mathematics.

It was found that at the beginning of the year, there was no correlation between math anxiety in female teachers and the ability of their students to achieve in math.

The teachers and students were assessed with respect to their math achievement during the first three months of the school year and again during the last two months of the year.

They were also asked questions to determine whether the students believed in the traditional belief that boys are better in math (than girls) and girls are better in reading (than boys).

Page three continues with the results of the study.




However, by the end of the school year, it was found that the more math-anxious the teachers were in front of their students, the more likely the girls were to hold the belief that boys were better at math than themselves and girls were better at reading than boys.

In addition, when such a situation occurred, the more anxious a female teacher appeared to her students the more likely the female students performed poorly in math.

However, this anxiety felt by the teacher was not negatively passed on to the male students with respect to their achievements.

In fact, the abstract to their paper stated, “Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall."

And, "In early elementary school, where the teachers are almost all female, teachers’ math anxiety carries consequences for girls’ math achievement by influencing girls’ beliefs about who is good at math."

Specifically, by the last part of the school year, 20 of the female students believed in the stereotype that boys were better at math than girls. These girls scored at average of 102.5 on a test that asked them to perform simple math.

The average scores for the other girls (45) and for all of the boys was 107.7.

Page four concludes with the conclusions made by the U.S. researchers about female math anxiety.




U.S. psychologist Sian Beilock, who led the study, stated, "Teachers who are anxious about their own math abilities are translating some of that to their kids.” [Los Angeles Times (1-26-2010): “Female teachers may pass on math anxiety to girls, study finds”]

They stated further on in their paper: “We speculate that having a highly math-anxious female teacher pushes girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which, in turn, affects girls’ math achievement."

"If so, it follows that girls who confirm traditional gender ability beliefs at the end of the school year (i.e., draw boys as good at math and girls as good at reading) should have lower math achievement than girls who do not and than boys more generally. This is exactly what we found.”


They concluded in their paper: “… [W]e show that female teachers’ math anxiety has consequences for the math achievement of girls in early elementary school grades. Given that this relation is mediated by girls’ gender ability beliefs, we speculate that female teachers model commonly held gender stereotypes to their female students through their math anxieties."

"These findings open a window into gender differences in math achievement and attitudes that emerge over the course of schooling.”

“Interestingly, math anxiety can be reduced through math training and education…. This suggests that the minimal mathematics requirements for obtaining an elementary education degree at most U.S. universities need to be rethought."

"If the next generation of teachers—especially elementary school teachers—is going to teach their students effectively, more care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators.”


In addition, recent studies have found that girls (and women) have just as much ability to perform math as to boys (and men).

For instance a 2008 study called “Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance” by U.S. researchers Janet S. Hyde, Sara M. Lindberg, Marcia C. Linn, Amy B. Ellis, and Caroline C. Williams found that girls scored equally well as boys when taking U.S. standardized tests in mathematics.

The paper was published in the journal Science in July 2008.

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