Indeed! And this confidence gap starts in elementary school! My high school students look at studies about how boys are more likely to speak up in the classroom and how teacher are more likely to call on boys than girls. Sheryl Sandberg's thoughts on the word "bossy" always spark a good discussion.

I'm personally skeptical that "math anxiety" even exists -- at least as it's generally described.

The usual way that we think about "math anxiety" is that a student basically understands the material, but in the context of an examination suddenly a cloud of fear and tension descends upon them, and they are unable to function. However, in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, when a student claims that they "really understand the concepts" but they have "math anxiety", it usually becomes very clear after a short discussion that they just can't do the math, and in fact they don't really know how to solve the problems. It's not that the examination somehow caused some form of a mental health episode; instead, the test was the moment when students actually had display their ability, and that's when they found out that they didn't really have a strong grasp of the material.

In the US, there is strong emphasis on "collaboration" and "group work" when studying math, and whatever the merits of this approach, it can enable students who can't actually solve problems to nonetheless get credit. Sure, Taylor and Ted "collaborated" on their math work, but in reality it was Taylor who understood everything and Ted just went along for the ride. For many students, an exam is the first time that they have to solve problems all by themselves, without assistance from their peers, and it's at that point that their weak understanding is finally made clear.

Part of the puzzle of "math anxiety" is that the corresponding phenomenon doesn't exist for other subjects -- there doesn't seem to be any "English anxiety" or "history anxiety" or "Spanish anxiety". Why do students experience this psychological state only with math? One explanation for this is that you can generally fake your way through an English or history exam even if you're somehow fuzzy on some of the details, but if you don't know how to solve a math problem, you just can't do it, and it's hard to cobble together some sort of vague half-answer the way you can in other subjects.

Of course, I understand that it is very unpleasant to take an exam when you simply can't do the problems; I've suffered this myself many times, and everyone who goes through such an ordeal has my sympathy. There's no doubt that the experience is very similar to an anxiety attack, so it's natural to think that that's the problem. But in general I suspect that much of "math anxiety" is simply not being able to perform, and it's not helpful to frame this as some sort of psychiatric disorder.

I love your comments! I'm a woman who had really good (female) math teachers up until college, and I enjoyed math. At university, I continued taking math up through Linear Algebra (which I failed the first time). Once at university, I didn't relate to either my teachers (all male) or peers (all engineering students). Anyway, I still remember that overwhelming feeling of not being able to do a problem on an exam which I experienced first at university. I agree that it can be likened to a panic attack! Secondly, I personally like to have my learning embedded within a social experience--I need to feel like I can get some "nurturing" help from teachers. I would not be surprised if a lot of other women felt similarly. My first experience with math at university was much too competitive for me: I felt like my teachers were looking for the "talented" students and that my peers were competing to see who was smartest. Both my experiences in high school and at university shaped how I worked at a job as a middle school math teacher. My message to students could be summarized as: 1) everyone of you CAN do the math through calculus (and I did have kids with dyscalculia); 2) you have to learn the math to do it; 3) you're not stupid if you don't get something--you just don't understand yet 4) ask for different examples and ways to do something.

Thank you! My second go at Linear Algebra (which I aced) was with a male professor. The difference was that he had a nurturing teaching style. I do wonder if the tendency of male teachers to make higher math "competetive" has something to do with young women turning away from it. I'm a big believer in math games as a fun way to practice math skills. However, that's quite different (in my mind) to the competitive atmosphere that arises in many higher maths class as early as high school.

I always teach my students about this "confidence gap" when we study feminism. So interesting.

It’s in many facets of life for women.

Indeed! And this confidence gap starts in elementary school! My high school students look at studies about how boys are more likely to speak up in the classroom and how teacher are more likely to call on boys than girls. Sheryl Sandberg's thoughts on the word "bossy" always spark a good discussion.

This is why I love girls education.

I'm personally skeptical that "math anxiety" even exists -- at least as it's generally described.

The usual way that we think about "math anxiety" is that a student basically understands the material, but in the context of an examination suddenly a cloud of fear and tension descends upon them, and they are unable to function. However, in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, when a student claims that they "really understand the concepts" but they have "math anxiety", it usually becomes very clear after a short discussion that they just can't do the math, and in fact they don't really know how to solve the problems. It's not that the examination somehow caused some form of a mental health episode; instead, the test was the moment when students actually had display their ability, and that's when they found out that they didn't really have a strong grasp of the material.

In the US, there is strong emphasis on "collaboration" and "group work" when studying math, and whatever the merits of this approach, it can enable students who can't actually solve problems to nonetheless get credit. Sure, Taylor and Ted "collaborated" on their math work, but in reality it was Taylor who understood everything and Ted just went along for the ride. For many students, an exam is the first time that they have to solve problems all by themselves, without assistance from their peers, and it's at that point that their weak understanding is finally made clear.

Part of the puzzle of "math anxiety" is that the corresponding phenomenon doesn't exist for other subjects -- there doesn't seem to be any "English anxiety" or "history anxiety" or "Spanish anxiety". Why do students experience this psychological state only with math? One explanation for this is that you can generally fake your way through an English or history exam even if you're somehow fuzzy on some of the details, but if you don't know how to solve a math problem, you just can't do it, and it's hard to cobble together some sort of vague half-answer the way you can in other subjects.

Of course, I understand that it is very unpleasant to take an exam when you simply can't do the problems; I've suffered this myself many times, and everyone who goes through such an ordeal has my sympathy. There's no doubt that the experience is very similar to an anxiety attack, so it's natural to think that that's the problem. But in general I suspect that much of "math anxiety" is simply not being able to perform, and it's not helpful to frame this as some sort of psychiatric disorder.

I love your comments! I'm a woman who had really good (female) math teachers up until college, and I enjoyed math. At university, I continued taking math up through Linear Algebra (which I failed the first time). Once at university, I didn't relate to either my teachers (all male) or peers (all engineering students). Anyway, I still remember that overwhelming feeling of not being able to do a problem on an exam which I experienced first at university. I agree that it can be likened to a panic attack! Secondly, I personally like to have my learning embedded within a social experience--I need to feel like I can get some "nurturing" help from teachers. I would not be surprised if a lot of other women felt similarly. My first experience with math at university was much too competitive for me: I felt like my teachers were looking for the "talented" students and that my peers were competing to see who was smartest. Both my experiences in high school and at university shaped how I worked at a job as a middle school math teacher. My message to students could be summarized as: 1) everyone of you CAN do the math through calculus (and I did have kids with dyscalculia); 2) you have to learn the math to do it; 3) you're not stupid if you don't get something--you just don't understand yet 4) ask for different examples and ways to do something.

Thank you Tina!

Speaking of the social component of learning, there's a great quote from Tibees, the YouTube creator:

"If you get bad grades, you need better friends."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQd28DTVX98

That’s interesting. I do think we need more female maths teachers. Without them, students continually get the message that maths is masculine.

Yes, this seems to be true of boys but girls suffer even if they are capable.

Thank you! My second go at Linear Algebra (which I aced) was with a male professor. The difference was that he had a nurturing teaching style. I do wonder if the tendency of male teachers to make higher math "competetive" has something to do with young women turning away from it. I'm a big believer in math games as a fun way to practice math skills. However, that's quite different (in my mind) to the competitive atmosphere that arises in many higher maths class as early as high school.

That’s a very specific and interesting take. I haven’t noticed this in secondary but I have mainly worked with girls.

I love this! Thank you.