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Approach to school affects how girls
compare with boys in math
Life Sciences Editor
photo to enlarge
of Illinois Photo
new study in the journal Developmental Psychology
by Eva Pomerantz, professor of psychology at Illinois,
indicates that how girls and boys approach their schooling
underlies the differences in math grades.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
More women are pursuing higher education and doctoral degrees than
ever before, but women still are rare in the math-oriented professions.
Yet, researchers say, girls perform just as well as boys on achievement
tests and tend to earn better grades in math than do boys during
the earlier school years.
A new study in the journal Developmental Psychology indicates that
how girls and boys approach their schooling underlies the differences
in math grades. It also suggests that although the girls’ approach
to school may give them an edge in the grades they earn in math, it
may not buy them much when it comes to math scores on achievement tests
because girls are not more confident than the boys about their skills
The study examined 518 boys and girls as they went through fifth and
seventh grades in three primarily white, middle- to upper-class school
districts in Illinois. Using children’s reports, researchers looked
at how the children approached their schoolwork, including their goals
and in-class behavior. The children also reported on how confident they
were about their ability to do well in math. Researchers also reviewed
the young students’ grades and achievement test scores in math.
In the classroom, girls outperformed boys at both time points of the
study, with the girls’ grades rising over time, while the boys’
grades remained the same, said Eva Pomerantz, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The study was part
of the doctoral work done by Gwen A. Kenney-Benson, who now is at Allegheny
College in Pennsylvania.
Concerns with outperforming others and engaging in disruptive behaviors
while in the classroom, both of which characterized boys more than girls,
were tied to lower grades in math by the researchers.
“This was due in large part to the fact that such competitive
and disruptive leanings were associated with decrements in learning
strategies such as preparing for tests, seeking help, and persisting
even when things were challenging that led to higher grades,”
Girls consistently used these learning strategies more than the boys
did, the researchers found. It appears that, in contrast to boys, girls
are more concerned with learning than with outperforming their classmates.
They also engaged in less disruptive classroom behavior. As a consequence,
girls used more focused learning strategies, giving them an edge over
boys in terms of grades, Pomerantz said.
The researchers noted that the differences in grades between girls
and boys disappeared once children’s concerns with learning versus
outperforming others, engagement in disruptive behavior and learning
strategies were taken into account.
At achievement test time, however, girls’ lost their advantage
in math; their scores were the same as those of boys. After examining
various factors, what stood out, Pomerantz said, was children’s
confidence in their ability to do well in math.
In the classroom, she said, children may be less likely to feel that
they will be judged based on their gender, believing instead that their
own behavior, knowledge and effort will determine their grades. Thus,
she added, the girls’ approach to schoolwork will pay off in the
classroom, while the boys’ approach will not. It also could be,
the researchers theorized, that higher grades given to the girls reflect
rewards from their teachers for better behavior.
During achievement tests, the researchers suggest, the environment changes.
Removed for girls is the familiarity of the classroom, which is replaced
with uncertainty and increased stress. In such a situation, confidence
mattered more than in the classroom.
Because confidence was found to be a predictor of scores on math achievement
tests, Pomerantz said, girls may not have kept the edge they had while
in the classroom because confidence levels did not differ along gender
It may be that while many girls are going on into higher education,
they continue to steer away from “stereotypically masculine fields,
such as science and engineering” because the “more competitive
environment of these fields is not a good fit with how girls approach
school,” the researchers wrote.
“Consequently, even if the topic is of interest,” Pomerantz
said, “the girls’ more learning-oriented approach may not
match the work environment, where the atmosphere in these fields may
provide a better fit to boys’ more competitive approach.”
Co-authors with Kenney-Benson and Pomerantz on the paper were Allison
M. Ryan, a professor of educational
psychology at Illinois, and Helen Patrick, a professor of educational
studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
The Chicago-based Spencer Foundation partially funded the study.