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Female students could be passing on STEM due to experiencing higher levels of maths anxiety than boys in primary school

Posted 22 May, 2024

STEM uptake by female students in Ireland could be being hampered by them experiencing higher levels of maths anxiety during primary school.

(opens in a new window)A new report outlining new recommendations to parents, teachers, and policymakers to better promote mathematics education warns a lack of confidence at such an early age could discourage young girls from pursuing an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Reporting the results of the (opens in a new window)Arithmós Project, collaborative between University College Dublin and Technological University Dublin, supported by funding from the Irish Research Council, it found at primary school level boys outperformed girls in most maths tasks and that the latter experienced higher levels of maths anxiety.

This unease in their mathematical ability means even the highest-achieving female students may shy away from maths tasks because they think they might be too difficult.

“It is striking that girls underperformed in some maths tasks despite having the same teachers and attending co-ed school,” said Arithmós Project lead, (opens in a new window)Dr Flavia H. Santos, UCD School of Psychology and Research Fellow at the UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy.

“Our data indicated that parental maths anxiety and negative attitudes towards maths had an impact on homework activities and in turn widening disparities. We as a society, educators and parents must change the way we introduce maths to young children.”

The report underscores gender disparities in attitudes toward mathematics, with boys demonstrating significantly higher motivation and perseverance, along with lower levels of mathematics anxiety.

The impact of mathematics attitudes on education, it says, demands immediate attention, prompting educators and policymakers to identify effective strategies to foster positive mathematics attitudes from an early age. 

One potential approach undertaken as part of the Arithmós Project involved the integration of educational digital games into the classroom.

The Seven Spells - an awarded digital card game that stimulates mathematical skills and strategic thinking developed by Dr Pierpaolo Dondio and Dr Mariana Rocha from Technological University Dublin – was introduced to 403 third and fourth graders (217 girls and 186 boys) across 23 classrooms in Ireland.

A number of children from each classroom played the Seven Spells games for five weeks, 45 minutes per week, during regular school hours. 

Others in the class were engaged with educational mathematics videos, while those in the ‘passive groups’ did only their regular classroom activities. 

Those children allowed to play Seven Spells showed a significant improvement in their maths skills, and after the intervention, many children, including highly maths anxious students, spontaneously continued playing Seven Spells on their own.

It means that gameplay reduced students' avoidance of the maths implied in the game, said Dr Santos.

“The gameplay had a positive effect on the avoidance towards maths as even highly maths anxious students spontaneously continue to play after the intervention,” she added.

By:  David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie