Negative stereotypes about girls’ aptitudes for math and science have long been recognized as an important factor in how girls perform in these subjects. In an intriguing French study, two researchers recently measured just how powerful– and how malleable–“stereotype threat” is, and their results make a strong argument for teaching middle school math in single-gender classrooms, they conclude.
For the study, middle school boys and girls were asked to perform a task that was variously characterized as geometry or as a memory or drawing task (Drawing is a required subject in the middle school grades in France.)
In the first part of the two-part study, the middle-schoolers (20 boys and 20 girls), selected because they had rated themselves as above-average in math ability and had identified math as a subject that was very important to them, worked independently on the same task, but some were told it was a geometry task while others were told it was a memory task.
Even though the girls had rated themselves as above average in math, they performed better than boys when they believed the task was a memory task, but performed worse than boys when they believed the task was geometry, the researchers report.
“This finding suggests that schoolgirls are influenced by the negative stereotype about their gender’s math ability on any high-pressure test that is correctly or incorrectly viewed as assessing mathematical skills,” the researchers write.
“The task we used is thought to tap a variety of skills (visual-perceptual and visual-spatial) as well as cognitive and meta-cognitive processes (attention, organization, and strategy use) that are basic components of academic performance. Our findings indicate that at least some of these fundamental skills and processes can be temporarily disrupted in girls who simply believe they are taking a math test.”
Students’ interest in the tasks did not vary based on how the tasks were characterized according to their self reports, the researchers write.
In the second part of the study, a larger and more representative sample of 454 students (223 girls and 231 boys of varied abilities aged 11-13) worked on the tasks under more typical classroom conditions, in mixed-gender or in single- gender groups. The students were either told they were working on a geometry task or on a drawing task. Researchers used an adaptation of the Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure (ROCF).
The results make a strong case for teaching middle-school math in single-gender classrooms, the researchers write. Girls in single-gender groups performed as well as boys when they were told they were working on a geometry task. In contast, girls in mixed-gender groups did not perform as well as boys when they believed they were working on a geometry task but outperformed them when they were told it was a drawing task.
Boys also seemed to benefit from the single- gender groupings. They performed better at both tasks in single-gender groups compared with how they performed in mixed-gender groups. The researchers suggest this is probably because they were better able to pay attention to the focal task.
“Once again, there are ample reasons to believe that gender composition has an effect on the emergence of stereotype threat,” the authors report. They observe, however, that sometimes separation of genders also has the effect of reinforcing or even creating stereotypes.
The researchers conducted their study with a modification of the Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure (ROCF) recall memory task, used for the neuropsychological assessment of children and adults. Students were given time to look at the image; the image was then removed, and they were asked to reproduce it.
“Added to the fact that both boys and girls performed better in the same-gender setting than in the mixed-gender setting, the elimination of stereotype threat in the former setting may be taken as a serious argument for separating the genders,” the authors write. “After all, if such a separation could minimize the deleterious effects of gender stereotypes, why not make use of it?”
But, separating the genders is not the only practical solution, the researchers add. Making students aware of stereotype threat and redefining the context in which a test is taken also are effective solutions. One previous study found that exposing students to an incremental view of intelligence can help mitigate the impact of stereotype threat.
As part of the study, students in the mixed and single-gender groups were asked to identify up to three classmates they considered high and low in math ability. Researchers wanted to see if girls’ views of high-ability girls as positive role models changed based on the gender composition of their classes.
In the geometry condition, girls in single-gender groups were more likely to identify female classmates who were high in math ability and less likely to identify female classmates low in math ability. The reverse was true for girls in mixedgender groups. Girls in mixed-gender groups were more likely to identify female classmates who were low in math ability and less likely to identify female classmates high in math ability. Girls’ greater accessibility to positive role models in the single-gender groups may have mediated the impact of the stereotype threat, the researchers note.
“Stereotype Threat Among Schoolgirls in Quasi-Ordinary Classroom Circumstances,” by Pascal Huguet and Isabelle Regner. Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 99, Number 3, 2007 pp. 545-560.
Published in ERN October 2007 Volume 20 Number 7