Monday, October 26, 2015

Girls and Boys and Math Anxiety

When you wander around college campuses, you see the effects of strong gender differences in preferences for majors.  At many schools, there are far more women than men majoring in psychology and biology, but far more men than women majoring in math and engineering.   

This observation has led researchers to explore reasons why men and women differ in the fields they choose.  One of the factors that has been explored is math anxiety—the amount of anxiety that people anticipate or experience when thinking about or doing math.  A common observation across many studies is that when women are asked about their anxiety about math in general they exhibit a higher level of math anxiety than men.

An interesting study by Thomas Goetz, Madeleine Bieg, Oliver Ludtke, Reinhard Pekrun, and Nathan Hall in the October, 2013 issue of Psychological Science examined three questions. First, they wanted to replicate the finding that women exhibit higher levels of math anxiety then men.  Then, they asked whether women who are currently taking a math class or a math exam are actually experiencing more anxiety than men.  Finally, they explored reasons for the differences in math anxiety.

Across two studies, they got measurements from about 700 German students in grades 5-11.  In one study, students were asked for their general level of math anxiety and then were asked to assess their anxiety twice while taking a math exam.  In the other study, students were asked about their general math anxiety and also their specific anxiety in the middle of a math class.  Students were also asked questions about how good they thought they were at math and information was gathered about their math grades.

Both studies found that the girls were more anxious about math in general than the boys.  Interestingly, when the questions were asked during an exam or during a class, the girls and boys were equal in their level of anxiety (and both boys and girls had very little anxiety in the moment).  

What is going on here?

It isn’t math performance.  The girls and boys in both studies were doing equally well in their math classes.

Instead, it seems to be related to differences between boys and girls in how good they think they are at math.  The boys’ ratings of their competence at math were consistently higher than those of the girls.  Statistical tests show these differences in ratings were related to differences in general math anxiety.

These findings suggest that it would be valuable to help all children get better calibrated about how well they are doing in math classes.  Knowing their level of performance could help them to reduce their anxiety about math in general.  In addition, it might be useful to take children who have general math anxiety and to help them to realize that they do not experience that much anxiety when they are actually doing math.  

Clearly, math anxiety is not the only factor that leads to differences in the majors that people pursue in college and the careers that they establish.  But, anything we can do to reduce the influence of general anxiety on career choices is a good thing.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Fables May Fail to Help Children

Stories are a central way that we pass information to people.  The beauty of stories is that they embed real cultural wisdom in a specific context.  They are easy to remember.  They capture people’s attention.  For all of these reasons, we often use stories to help people learn new strategies for dealing with life.

When we tell stories to young children, though, we often make them even more interesting by introducing fantasy elements.  Aesop’s fables were about animals rather than people.  Picture books are filled with stories of fairies, witches, unicorns, and princesses from faraway lands. 

There are lots of goals for telling stories to children, but there is often at least some attempt to teach kids something about life.  When we hope to educate, does it matter whether the stories are about the real world or about fantasy?

This question was explored in a series of studies published in 2009 in the Journal of Cognition and Development by Alison Shawber, Ruth Hoffman, and Marjorie Taylor.  In these studies, children were told stories about people or fantasy characters who had to solve a problem.  For example, a character might carry a number of apples by wrapping them up in a blanket.  Later, the children would be exposed to a problem like having to carry a lot of marbles.  They were given many objects to solve this problem including a towel.  The correct answer was to wrap the marbles up in the towel, just as the character in the story wrapped up the apples.

In one study, younger children (about 4-years old) and older children (about 5-years old) were told one story about a real child and a second story about a fairy that solved a different problem.  The solutions associated with the real child and the fairy were varied across children, so that the influence of the character was not related to the specific solution presented in the story. 

After hearing the stories, children were given a chance to solve a problem similar to the one described in the story.  If they could not solve it on their own, they were given a hint to use the story.  At the end of the experiment, the children were asked which story they would like to hear again as a measure of whether they preferred the story about the child or the story about the fairy.

Overall, children were more likely to solve the problem when it was told about a real child than when it was told about a fantasy character.  About 75% of the children in the study solved the problem with or without a hint when it was about a real child, but only about 50% solved it with or without a hint when it was about a fairy.

Another interesting result was that the younger children who preferred the story about the fairy to the story about the child had much more difficulty solving the problem than the older children who preferred the story about the fairy.  So, there seems to be a trend where children gradually learn to extract the solution from fantasy setting.

Putting all of this together, it suggests that young children find may find fantasy characters interesting, but they have a hard time learning the point of the story when it is embedded in a fantasy situation.  They find it easier to understand the point of the story when it is about real people.  The older children who liked fantasy stories tended to get better at solving the problem, but even they were much worse overall than the ones who heard the story about the real child. 

This work suggests that when stories are being told to teach children rather than just to entertain them, it might be best to focus those stories on realistic settings rather than fantastic ones.