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Do girls and boys experience mathematics learning problems equally?

More boys than girls are diagnosed with dyslexia, reading disability, ADHD, and autistic spectrum disorder (see 1 for a review of these studies). However, past research has revealed inconsistent gender differences in mathematics learning problems such as developmental dyscalculia and mathematics anxiety. We conducted two studies to investigate whether there were gender differences in developmental dyscalculia and mathematics anxiety in UK school pupils.

Study 1: Gender differences in Developmental Dyscalculia

What is Developmental Dyscalculia?

Developmental dyscalculia (hereafter referred to as dyscalculia) is a specific learning difficulty of mathematical skills. Children with dyscalculia have poor performance in mathematics but have typical reading performance, IQ and motivation levels. Approximately 3 – 6% of the population are affected by it. You can learn more about dyscalculia here.

What does past research show?

Past studies of dyscalculia are quite difficult to compare because the studies have used different tests and different criteria to diagnose it. For example, some researchers ensure reading, language abilities and/or IQ are within the normal range in children with dyscalculia whereas other researchers only diagnose it on the basis of low mathematics scores.

One study in the Netherlands revealed that more girls than boys were diagnosed with dyscalculia. In contrast, two large studies in the US have found that more boys than girls were diagnosed. Yet, several other studies have found that equal numbers of boys and girls were diagnosed with developmental dyscalculia (see 1 for a review of these studies).

What did we do?

Our researchers administered maths and reading tests to 1,004 children in Years 3 and 4 of primary school. Children completed these under test-like conditions. We diagnosed dyscalculia in different ways in order to determine if the diagnostic criteria used made a difference to the gender ratio (i.e., the number of girls and boys with dyscalculia). For example, in one definition we defined dyscalculia as having mathematics scores below the average range (i.e., below 1 standard deviation below the average maths performance score) and reading performance at or above the average range (i.e., above 1 standard deviation below the average reading performance score).

What did we find?

We found that the average maths performance of girls and boys was similar. Approximately 6% of the sample were diagnosed with dyscalculia. Regardless of which diagnostic criteria we used, we found that the gender ratio of boys and girls meeting the criteria for developmental dyscalculia was 1:1.

Study 2: Gender differences in Mathematics Anxiety

What is Maths Anxiety?

Mathematics anxiety refers to a negative emotional reaction to tasks involving mathematics. Children and adults may experience mathematics anxiety as apprehension, dislike, worry, tension, frustration, or fear. Mathematics anxiety does not occur only in the classroom – it can affect mathematics used in everyday life too. Click here to learn more about mathematics anxiety.

What does past research show?

Similar to the research investigating gender differences in developmental dyscalculia, past research exploring gender differences in mathematics anxiety has also revealed mixed results. Some studies have shown that boys’ and girls’ maths anxiety levels are the same. A few studies have shown that boys reported higher maths anxiety levels than girls. However, more than 20 studies have shown that girls report higher maths anxiety than boys, and this is particularly the case when looking at secondary school pupils.

Past research has also revealed moderate negative associations between maths anxiety and maths performance. What this means is that in general, people with low maths anxiety tend to have better maths performance, and as maths anxiety levels increase, maths performance moderately decreases (see 2 and 3 for a review of the past research).

What did we do?

We measured maths anxiety, test anxiety (anxiety specifically about testing situations), and mathematics performance in more than 400 secondary school children. Maths anxiety and test anxiety were measured using questionnaires. For example, in the maths anxiety questionnaire the children had to rate how anxious they would feel on a 5-point scale ranging from ‘Low anxiety’ to ‘High Anxiety’ in certain situations involving maths. An example item is ‘Being given a homework assignment of many difficult problems that is due the next class meeting’. The test anxiety questionnaire asked the pupils to rate how anxious they would feel in tests. The children were administered the tests and questionnaires under test-like conditions.

 

We compared the maths anxiety and test anxiety levels of girls and boys. We also compared girls’ and boys’ mathematics performance. We were interested in the association between mathematics anxiety and the students’ maths performance. We predicted that there would be a negative association between maths anxiety and performance in our sample, as past research has consistently shown, but we were interested in whether there would be a difference in this association between boys and girls.

What did we find?

We found that girls’ mathematics anxiety and test anxiety was higher than boys’ mathematics anxiety and test anxiety. However, girls’ and boys’ performance on the mathematics test was the same.

When we looked at the association between maths anxiety and maths performance, we found that this association was stronger for girls than for boys. What this means is that generally, as maths anxiety increased, girls experienced more of a drop in maths performance than boys and as maths anxiety decreased, girls experienced more of a performance gain than boys. Importantly, we cannot say from these results that maths anxiety affected performance or vice versa, as the results only show an association, not a causal direction.

When we took into account the effects of test anxiety, the association between maths anxiety and performance disappeared for boys, but remained for girls. What this means is that the maths anxiety-performance association in boys was accounted for by anxiety about testing situations. This was not the case for girls; the association between maths anxiety and maths performance was not simply explained by the amount of test anxiety the girls experienced.

What can we conclude about gender differences in maths learning problems?

From these studies we can conclude that girls and boys have similar levels of maths performance in both primary and secondary school. We can also conclude that an equal number of girls and boys are affected by dyscalculia. However, girls appear to be more affected by emotional maths learning problems than boys: girls reported higher levels of maths anxiety than boys, showed a stronger association between maths anxiety and performance than boys, and the association between maths anxiety and performance was not accounted for by test anxiety in secondary school girls.

Links to articles

  1. Devine, A., Soltész, F., Nobes, A., Goswami, U., & Szűcs, D. (2013). Gender differences in developmental dyscalculia depend on diagnostic criteria. Learning and Instruction, 27, 31–39. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2013.02.004
  2. Devine, A., Fawcett, K., Szűcs, D., & Dowker, A. (2012). Gender differences in mathematics anxiety and the relation to mathematics performance while controlling for test anxiety. Behavioral and Brain Functions : BBF, 8(1), 33. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-8-33
  3. Carey, E., Hill, F., Devine, A., & Szucs, D. (2016). The chicken or the egg? The direction of the relationship between mathematics anxiety and mathematics performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1987). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01987