Passing Along Anxiety

Dear Teachers,

Why do girls struggle with math? Why do female teacher candidates, more often than their male counterparts, complain about their required math classes? Explanations include social stereotyping that says STEM fields are for boys, co-ed classrooms where boys dominate teachers’ attention, studies of brain differences, and so on.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Chicago knew from previous studies that “elementary education majors are largely female and have the highest levels of math anxiety of any college major.” Therefore they surveyed 17 first- and second-grade female teachers about their attitudes toward math, using a short version of a decades-old instrument called the MARS, or Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale. Questions ask how anxious the survey-taker would be in various situations, like taking a math test or calculating the tip for a restaurant bill. What were the results?

There was no relation between a teacher’s math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year.  By school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls  (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype or belief that “boys are good at  math and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. 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.

Math anxiety does not mean someone can’t do math well. It basically means that for some individuals, their fear about the topic is so intense that they sabotage themselves inadvertently. For the students in this study, the research team looked for stereotyped ideas about math ability by reading the children stories about someone who was good at reading and someone who excelled at math and then asking them to draw a picture of each character.

If the teachers were just ineffective with math instruction, the paper argues, then boys’ levels of achievement should have declined by the beginning of the year, too. This didn’t happen. And while the study is not particularly large and all participants come from the same school district, the results still may make one stop and wonder.

So now I’m wondering. Take a look at this photo. How does it make you feel?

Why do women who go into elementary education have higher math anxiety? My mother, who taught the children of Russian migrant workers in Oregon many decades ago, has often remarked that she never understood WHY math worked, just the steps she was supposed to follow, until she took a number theory course required for elementary education majors. Then it all made so much sense to her that she was able to help my father with his calculus homework. That feeling of mastery (and possibly even superiority to a male science major 🙂 ) got her into her first classroom confident that she could handle mathematics.

The pattern of “I don’t know WHY, just WHAT to do” seems to be pretty powerful all these years later, too. I see a lot of junior high and high school students who haven’t mastered the basic concepts of fractions, positive and negative numbers, and even their multiplication tables and who therefore are lost in geometry, advanced algebra, chemistry, and physics. They memorized the concepts just enough to get through a test in fourth grade.

So what can help? Do elementary education majors need more math courses to combat math anxiety? Better courses? Are there possibly resources out there on the web, whether interactive games or videos, that could help future teachers become masters of the math they will be explaining to students? Is it more a matter of showing confidence in the classroom and occasionally saying, “I love math now that I understand it”?

I don’t remember the specifics of my early math education, but if one of those teachers–because they were all female until I reached the fifth grade–curbed her own math anxiety to hide it from us girls in the room, I owe her.


A Former “Only Girl on the Team” Mathlete

Works Cited

Beilock, Sian L., Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Gerardo Ramirez, and Susan C. Levine. “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Impacts Girls’ Math Achievement.” Web. 22 Jan. 2012 <>.


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