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The Importance of Teaching Young Women to Take on Challenges in Math and Science

posted Apr 13, 2016, 2:47 PM by Furthering Girls' Math Identity   [ updated Jun 15, 2016, 8:53 AM ]
Decades of research demonstrate a persistent gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) college majors and careers. Many in the research community have argued that students’ beliefs are an important determinant in persistence in these fields, above and beyond math and science ability or achievement in school.

Researchers from Florida State University recently published a study in Frontiers in Psychology, which explored the relation between high school students’ beliefs about math and their persistence in postsecondary STEM fields. Using data from a nationally representative survey (the Education Longitudinal Study), Nix and colleagues followed 4,450 students from 10th grade to two years after high school graduation and examined the interplay between gender, perceptions of ability to succeed under challenging conditions, advanced science course enrollment during high school, and college major. They took advantage of this rich dataset and answered several research questions aimed at understanding why young women are more likely than men to opt out of college majors in STEM.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this study is the focus on students’ perceived abilities when challenged in verbal and math domains and studying in general. For example, students were asked how certain or confident they were that they could "understand the most difficult material presented in English texts" or "understand the most complex material presented by [their] math teacher." The researchers then looked to see if there were gender differences in these perceptions and whether these perceptions predicted advanced science course enrollment and college major selection in students who went on to 2- or 4-year colleges and universities.

Although these domain-specific measures may seem very similar to other beliefs frequently included in achievement motivation research, such as math self-efficacy, Nix and colleagues delineate these measures of perceived abilities when challenged from self-efficacy, explaining that self-efficacy questions typically focus on a respondent’s perceived ability to "do a specific task" and thus may miss a respondent’s immediate and overall assessment of their math ability.

Nix and colleagues found no gender differences in respondents’ perceptions of verbal skills, but young women reported lower perceived abilities when challenged in math during high school, compared to their male counterparts. Young women were also less likely to think that people can learn to be good at math – that is, they were more likely to have a "fixed mindset" about math skills. Taken together, the researchers suggest that these findings might mean that young women are at a disadvantage in terms of being resilient during math-related setbacks or challenges.

Furthermore, young women were less likely than young men to take advanced science courses in high school and findings suggested that math abilities, as measured by test scores, were strongly related to science course selection. This finding suggests the importance of supporting girls’ math skills, so they are equipped with the skills necessary to enroll and succeed in advanced science courses. Interestingly, the researchers went on to find that perceived abilities when challenged in 10th grade math was the only student belief variable that predicted completion of advanced chemistry and physics courses in high school; students who were less confident about overcoming math challenges were less likely to complete advanced science courses. This finding was consistent for both males and females.

Not surprisingly, the researchers also found that completing advanced chemistry and physics in high school increased the likelihood that students would later declare a college major in physics, engineering, math, or computer science. Similarly, young women with higher perceived abilities when challenged in high school math were more likely to major in these fields in college. And both male and female students who had higher perceived math abilities when challenged were also more likely to actually stay in STEM majors, two years after entering college.

So what does this all mean? Gender gaps in the completion of advanced science courses in high school remain, and are likely influenced by both the math ability levels and beliefs of students. These gender gaps in high school course completion likely influence later gaps in STEM college majors and persistence, especially in the areas of physics, engineering, advanced math, and computer science. If we want to close these gaps, we need to help young women develop math skills that will help them succeed in advanced science courses in high school. We also need to equip young women with the tools to take on challenges in math and science, so they are prepared to overcome possible roadblocks and hurdles as they continue through the STEM pipeline.

Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation, provides some helpful tips that educators and parents can use to help students develop these skills in a 2008 report, including:
  1. Teaching students that the brain is a muscle that can get stronger if students stretch themselves and learn new things.
  2. Demonstrating how to embrace challenges and even mistakes by illustrating that valuable experiences often come about as the result of an error or struggle.
  3. Praising students for persevering through challenging circumstances and tasks, rather than putting all of the focus on the final product.

Martha Bleeker
(Click name for contact information.)
Senior Survey Researcher
Mathematica Policy Research