In spite of progress in recent decades, fewer females than males pursue careers in physical sciences, engineering, and computer science (Halpern et al., 2007). When female students opt out of these subjects, they shut the door to a growing job market—and society loses needed mathematicians and scientists. What does research tell us about promising ways to boost female students' interest in math and science?
What We Know
Research shows that the achievement gap in mathematics between boys and girls has all but disappeared. A recent study by Hyde and Mertz (2009) examined mandated tests in 10 states as well as National Assessment of Educational Progress data. Differences in achievement between boys and girls in these 10 states across all grades were insignificant. Yet, in spite of girls' increased levels of achievement in these subjects, they still are not making their way into careers in math and science.
Recent studies have refuted claims that there is an innate difference in abilities between the sexes; instead, these studies suggest that the smaller proportions of girls pursuing careers in math and science in the United States may be caused by cultural differences and expectations (University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2009). A longitudinal study on children's beliefs about academic competency found that, beginning at an early age, girls rate their math ability lower than boys do, even when no actual difference in math achievement exists (Herbert & Stipek, 2005). This is an important finding because students with more confidence in their math and science abilities are more likely to excel in these subjects and pursue coursework and careers in these fields (Simpkins & Davis-Kean, 2005).
These findings suggest that one key to preparing all students for the 21st century is addressing girls' perceptions of their abilities, also referred to as self-efficacy. Halpern and colleagues (2007) summarize research on various strategies for encouraging girls in math and science. Three strategies related to self-efficacy that have some degree of research support are (1) teaching students that academic abilities are not fixed, but expandable and improvable, (2) exposing girls to female role models who have succeeded in math and science, and (3) providing informational feedback. Let's look at this third strategy in more depth.
A number of experimental studies have found that student confidence in math improves when teachers provide prescriptive, informational feedback. Such feedback praises effort, identifies how the student has erred in problem solving, or points out how the student has improved in his or her use of specific strategies (Turner et al., 2002). To provide informational feedback, teachers need to use ongoing formative assessments (such as conversation, homework, and quizzes) that identify students' strengths and weaknesses in mastering content in real time.
Although this finding seems like common sense, research shows that teachers are not providing enough of this kind of targeted feedback. In fact, a descriptive study of teacher feedback across 58 3rd grade math classrooms suggests that most teacher feedback is vague, limited to summative phrases (such as "very good" or "try again") with little or no detail, either positive or negative (Foote, 1999). Also common is the use of praise focused on the student's intelligence ("You're so smart to be able to solve that problem!") instead of on effort and use of strategies ("I can tell you've been working hard," or "You've really mastered conversion of fractions to decimals"). When feedback centers on ability, students get the idea that academic success depends on their innate intelligence rather than effort and continuing learning (Dweck, 2006).
Turner and colleagues' (2002) longitudinal study of 1,197 6th grade elementary school students examined the relationship between the learning environment in math classrooms and avoidance strategies, such as failing to seek academic help, which are often caused by a lack of confidence in the subject. Researchers found that when teachers included both genuine praise for math accomplishments and efforts and specific feedback on performance, students were more likely to ask for assistance and to have better self-efficacy. Conversely, teachers in low-mastery classes typically focused on getting students to arrive at the correct answer rather than providing specific information to build students' capacity for problem solving.
Constructive, specific feedback is valuable for all students, but it has particular value for girls because of their tendency to have low self-efficacy in math and science. Such feedback enables students to focus on correcting specific errors and invites them to ask for assistance when needed, rather than reinforcing the belief that a wrong answer is the result of an innate lack of ability.
What You Can Do
If schools are to produce the mathematicians and scientists we need in the 21st century, teachers must use strategies that bolster both female and male students' feelings of self-efficacy in math and science. Teachers can create a high-mastery classroom by providing specific feedback to help students correct their mistakes, by genuinely praising efforts, and by focusing on students' ability to improve and learn.
Through formative assessments, teachers can gather timely feedback on students' understandings of the content being taught and use this information to provide targeted information about what the student does and does not understand. Such teacher guidance is especially important in building student self-efficacy, and it may hold the key to encouraging more girls to pursue advanced studies in mathematics and science.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Is math a gift? Belthat put females at risk. In S. J. Ceci & W. Williams (Eds.), Why aren't more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence
(pp. 47–55). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Foote, C. (1999). Attribution feedback in the elementary classroom. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 13(2), 155–166.
Halpern, D., Aronson, J., Reimer, N., Simpkins, S., Star, J., & Wentzel, K. (2007).
Encouraging girls in math and science: IES practice guide (NCER 2007-2003). Washington, DC: Institute of Educational Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Available: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/20072003.pdf
Herbert, J., & Stipek, D. (2005). The emergence of gender differences in children's perceptions of their academic competence. Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 276–295.
Hyde, J., & Mertz, J. (2009). Gender, culture, and mathematics performance.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 8,801–8,807.
Simpkins, S., & Davis-Kean, P. (2005). The intersection between self-concept and values: Links between beliefs and choices in high school. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 110, 31–47.
Turner, J., Midgley, C., Meyer, D., Gheen, M., Anderman, E., Kang, Y., & Patrick, H. (2002). The classroom environment and students' reports of avoidance strategies in mathematics: A multimethod study.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 88–106.
University of Wisconsin–Madison. (2009, June 2). Culture, not biology, underpins math gender gap. Science Daily [Online]. Available: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090601182655.htm.
Author's note: Grace Calisi Corbett, WestEd Research Associate, assisted in the preparation of this column.
Tracy A. Huebner is Senior Research Associate at WestEd, San Francisco, California; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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