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ChildsWork News, June 18, 2012: Surprising Factors that Affect Math Grades

June 18, 2012

ChildsWork News, June 18, 2012: Surprising Factors that Affect Math Grades

The summer break is upon us and for many educators that means taking some time to reevaluate the effectiveness their curriculum and the progress being made by all students, especially in the key “STEM” subjects. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. These subjects, and American students’ performance on the world stage, have taken a special place in the political/educational environment of this election year. On that note two very interesting studies this week seem to point out where some of the gaps in STEM scores originate from and what we, as educators, might do to bridge them. The first comes from Slate’s special issue on science education. It details a study that will appear in Psychological Science about the difference between male and female performance in STEM subjects and the affects that our attitudes may have. The next study comes from the University of Missouri. Here, another social factor seems to point towards less success in STEM subjects, especially math. This time, the effect of a child’s weight, specifically those children who classify as obese, also seems connected to math success and failure. These two studies are by no means definitive. However, the intense relationship they seem to suggest between STEM subject success and controllable environmental factors seems to be especially relevant as we begin to plan our future approach to teaching. Study Offers Possible Explanation for the Huge Gender Gap in Science and Math By Maggie Severns for Slate Schools have tried for years to encourage girls to explore careers in math and science, yet a stubborn gender gap in the STEM fields persists. But new research might have an explanation: The messages we take in about our gender—like the old refrain that girls aren’t as good as boys at science–can influence the way we perform. Believing you have innate qualities that make you good or bad at something—called “entity theories”— can change the way you handle a difficult task, psychologists have theorized. Children who adopt entity theories about a skill, like math or science ability, are likely to perform worse when challenged at those activities because they think their skills are inborn and are therefore less likely to put in energy and hard, constructive work. A study published recently in Psychological Science, led by a researcher from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, takes this idea a step further by suggesting that children can adopt these beliefs from information they hear about their gender (and, presumably, about other social categories, too). Telling a boy he’s destined to be good at math might encourage him to coast; meanwhile, telling a girl that girls aren’t good at math, the theory dictates, will not motivate her to work hard to overcome that adversity. A girl who hears that “girls are bad at math” can internalize that message, believe she is bad at math, and do worse at math because of it. To test this theory, 144 children, ages 4 to 7, played a game in which they looked at pictures of 3-D blocks shown from different angles, then matched pairs of images that showed the same block from a different perspective. After one round, the adult leading the experiment told some children that the other gender group was successful at that game (so girls heard, “Boys are good at this game”). A second group was told about other individuals’ skills (“That girl is good at this game”), and a third group heard no further information.. Then the children played a second, more difficult round. The scores of those who were given the gender prompts fell by an average of 12.8 percent. By contrast, children who were told about another individual child’s success or failure stayed about the same. Scores fell 2.9 percent among the kids who heard nothing. These changes in behavior speak volumes about stereotypes that children absorb from those around them: In this case, a relative stranger appears to have had an immediate effect on how children approached the task at hand. Luckily, it also points to how adults can curb these effects among girls and boys alike: teaching the value of persistence and working hard. Childhood Obesity Linked to Math Performance, MU Researchers Say From a University of Missouri Press Release Childhood obesity has increased dramatically throughout the past 40 years and has been tied to many health problems. Now, a University of Missouri researcher has found that children’s weight is associated with their math performance. “The findings illustrate the complex relationships among children’s weight, social and emotional well-being, academics and time,” said Sara Gable, associate professor in the MU Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, who led the study. Gable looked at more than 6,250 children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample. The children were followed from the time they started kindergarten through fifth grade. At five points in time, parents provided information about their families, teachers reported on the children’s interpersonal skills and emotional well-being, and children were weighed and measured; they also took academic tests. When compared with children who were never obese, boys and girls whose obesity persisted from the start of kindergarten through fifth grade performed worse on the math tests, starting in first grade. Their lower performance continued through fifth grade. For boys whose obesity emerged later—in third or fifth grade—no such differences were found. For girls who became obese later, poorer math performance was temporary. In addition, for girls who were persistently obese, having fewer social skills explained some part of their poorer math performance. For both boys and girls who were persistently obese, feeling sadder, lonelier and more anxious also explained some of their poorer math performance. “Our study suggests that childhood obesity, especially obesity that persists throughout the elementary grades, can harm children’s social and emotional well-being and academic performance,” Gable said. The study, “Boys’ and Girls’ Weight Status and Math Performance from Kindergarten Entry through Fifth Grade: A Mediated Analysis,” was published in the journal Child Development. The study was supported by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service through its Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Program. Researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of California, Los Angeles assisted Gable with the study.

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