01 Oct 2021

Maths anxiety, confidence and ChooseMaths

Article by Inge Koch

The proportion of girls and young women in advanced mathematics classes in school and in the mathematical sciences at Australian universities is much lower than that of boys.  Typically the percentage of young women in third-year university mathematics subjects is between 20% and 30% only.

There is no simple or unique answer to WHY this is the case.  Each of us has her/his own perception of or insight into the manifold reasons that caused this gap in the gender distribution of women and men in the mathematical sciences and the workforce. Indeed in many countries, this gap has been increasing further.

The ChooseMaths program started in mid-2015 with the aim of increasing participation of girls and young women across the mathematical sciences and into the workforce.

In Australia, the five-year ChooseMaths program started in mid-2015 with the aim of increasing participation of girls and young women across the mathematical sciences and into the workforce.  Maths performance and gender-based comparisons of performance were not part of this program, instead, the emphasis and strength of ChooseMaths lay in its multifaceted approach. That included the ability for us to learn directly from school students and their teachers about the prejudices, (gender) biases and differences in attitudes towards mathematics across years 5 to 10, and to work on approaches and strategies to address these issues and reverse the trend.

 

Setting the scene

More than 90% of primary teachers in Australian schools are female. Many of them have no or minimal training in (teaching) mathematics.

More than 90% of primary teachers in Australian schools are female. Many of them have no or minimal training in (teaching) mathematics, and many are reluctant or anxious when teaching mathematics.  Behaviour, attitudes and opinions of our young female students more than those of boys are guided by the behaviour and attitudes of female role models, often the teachers, but also parents.  The seeds are sown…

After seven years of primary school students move on to six years of high school with teachers trained in the disciplines they teach.  But this is not always the case, since nearly 30% of mathematics teachers are out-of-field; they do not have the minimum mathematics education they should have.

Of course, there are also many excellent teachers and educators in our education system and they do a fantastic job with girls and boys.

ChooseMaths 

The philanthropic arm of mining company BHP, the BHP Foundation, provided funding from mid-2015 and together with the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) were responsible for the ChooseMaths program. AMSI is a national not-for-profit which provides advocacy and leads and supports developments in research and higher education, school education and engagement with government, the industrial and commercial world in the mathematical sciences in Australia.

Over the next five years, ChooseMaths had a staff of 12-18 including up to 10 very experienced primary and secondary mathematics teachers and two statisticians. ChooseMaths established good working relationships with about 120 schools across Australia including remote areas in the far north of Western Australia and Queensland, as well as city schools in Melbourne and other capital cities where BHP had mining interests.  The schools included single-sex girls as well as co-ed, primary and secondary from the government and private sector. ChooseMaths teachers visited and worked with each of the 120 schools for extended periods 4 to 8 times each year.  During these visits the ChooseMaths teachers conducted special classes for year 5 to year 9 students which consisted of a pre-survey, finding out how the brain works and learns and focussing on year-specific mathematics-based games and activities, followed by a post-survey which allowed us to learn about the effect of these `treatments’ on students’ confidence in mathematics and much more.  The ChooseMaths teachers also engaged in mentoring, upskilling for local teachers, and school-specific programs to advance mathematics teaching.  Resulting from all of this were annual teacher and student surveys.

ChooseMaths Highlights

An annual highlight was the celebration of excellent teachers and great mathematics projects from student teams with prizes for the 10 best mathematics teachers and the best 10 projects which were open to every school in the country.  It was simply great to meet these dedicated and wonderful teachers who all had demonstrated their involvement and enthusiasm for mentoring and supporting girls in their mathematics endeavours and to hear the students showing their enthusiasm for the projects they had worked on.

It was simply great to meet these dedicated and wonderful teachers who all had demonstrated their involvement and enthusiasm for mentoring and supporting girls in their mathematics endeavours.

ChooseMaths held special events for girls aged 14 and 15, the ChooseMaths Days, at Australian universities where dedicated ChooseMaths staff and local university mathematicians organised these annual events with talks and activities to encourage girls, and introduce them to `one-step ahead’ role models—university students who are only a few years older but are doing the `next’ step in their education. Information about university study and careers were also part of the event program.  These events were complemented by monthly mentoring meetings of female 14 and 15 year old student groups from ChooseMaths schools and mentors from university students and academics to industry partners.

Another big ChooseMaths highlight was the workshop Mathematics, Gender and Mathematics Education in 2018 in Melbourne which included international participants and aimed to develop and advance practical strategies to address maths anxiety in students and teachers; increase students’ confidence; and affect teachers’ and students’ attitudes towards mathematics.  About 40 university researchers in mathematics, statistics, psychology, maths education, science and engineering, mathematics teachers, including some of the previous ChooseMaths prize winners, and government education specialists participated and helped to make the workshop a success.

What did we learn?

Maths anxiety starts in primary school.  It is `contagious’ and girls are more susceptible to it than boys.

Maths anxiety starts in primary school.  It is `contagious’ and girls are more susceptible to it than boys. It adversely affects confidence and one’s perceived ability to learn new maths with the consequence that, typically, one’s performance suffers. But like many diseases, we can recover with appropriate help from role models and mentors, good teacher and the right sort of positive reinforcement.

As students progress through the school years, their confidence in their ability decreases especially when they enter secondary school and overall confidence is lower for girls than for boys.  A positive finding was that levels of confidence increase again a few years into high school.

The student surveys showed that girls more than boys were positively affected by the confidence building activities they met in the ChooseMaths classes. At all year levels we observe a big increase in confidence, enthusiasm and an unexpectedly strong response to the question `my brain can learn new maths’. The increases were much larger for girls than boys.

Together, we can start to make the change happen.

The fact that students’ confidence increases again a few years into secondary school and that girls’ attitudes, self-assessment and confidence improve is very encouraging and gives hope that lasting change is possible and, together, we can start to make the change happen.

 

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