Gender Differences Found In The Way Boys And Girls Solve Math Problems

June 04, 1997

WASHINGTON -- Just say the word math and some people roll their eyes or shake their heads. America's school children in particular are not known for their abilities in the subject. Two new studies in the June issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA), look at gender differences in math learning in elementary school and the role social pressure plays in math achievement for adolescents.

For decades researchers and educators have discussed gender differences in math abilities among American children. A new study shows that, as early as first grade, differences exist in the strategies boys and girls use to solve math problems.

To establish that gender differences in math exist and identify what the differences were, psychological researchers Martha Carr, Ph.D., and Donna Jessup, Ph.D., from the University of Georgia videotaped 58 first graders (30 boys and 28 girls) solving 10 addition and 10 subtraction problems. The students were videotaped solving the math problems individually and then in a mixed gender setting.

Results showed that by January of their first grade year, gender differences existed but only in the way that the children approached problem solving, not in the number of problems the students solved correctly. In both individual and group settings girls were more likely to use overt methods -- counting on counters or counting on fingers -- to solve the problems. Boys were more likely to use retrieval -- relying on memorized answers -- in both individual and group settings.

Over the course of the school year, boys were also more likely to increase their attempts to use retrieval even if they were not successful. Girls, however, seemed to be more concerned with being right and used backup strategies of counting on counters and counting on fingers. In group settings retrieval -- the boys' preferred strategy -- dominated the group work. Was this because the girls were feeling pressure from the boys? "No. The boys did not ridicule the girls for counting on counters or fingers. Pressure from the boys did not exist," says Dr. Carr, lead author of the study. "We believe that social pressure does occur, but not in the first grade," she continued.

Article: "Gender Differences in First Grade Mathematics Strategy Use: Social and Metacognitive Influences" by Martha Carr, Ph.D., and Donna L. Jessup, Ph.D., University of Georgia, in Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 89, No. 2, pp 318-328.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is thelargest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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