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Teachers 'may be underrating girls' aptitude in mathematics'

16/11/2016 Joanna

A new study has indicated that teachers may be unwittingly playing a part in the discrepancy in general attainment levels between girls and boys in mathematics.

US research carried out by New York University Steinhardt has offered evidence that teachers frequently underrate the maths capabilities of their female students, an unconscious bias that may help to explain why boys generally achieve better grades in maths than their female counterparts.

For this research, scientists assessed the performance of two cohorts of preschool students - one from 1998-1999 and another from 2010-2011 - with more than 12,500 children included in the study in total. Specifically, they aimed to identify when gender gaps in maths started to appear, while assessing the role that students' learning behaviours and teacher expectations played in this.

It was found that gender gaps among the highest-achieving pupils developed before students had even reached nursery school age, with the discrepancy growing worse throughout primary school. Looking at the two datasets, no improvements were seen over the last decade.

In cases where boys and girls demonstrated similar behaviour and academic performance, teachers in both cohorts were shown to underrate the maths skills of girls as early as the start of primary school, with educators needing to perceive girls as working harder than similarly-achieving boys to rate them as equally proficient in maths.

This suggests that the widespread perception that girls perform worse at maths - which is backed up by data in the UK and other countries - may to some extent be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Study leader Joseph Robinson Cimpian, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University Steinhardt, said: "While more research is needed to better understand the link between teacher expectations and gender gaps, this study replicates an earlier study of ours suggesting that the widening of the gender gap is partially due to the lower expectations that teachers hold of girls in maths."

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