Competitive Timed Tests Might Be Contributing to the Gender Gap in Math

New research suggests that removing time-limited competition from classroom learning could help girls improve their math performance.
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Third-grade gifted and talented math class students Molly Trevor, 8, Matt Stec, 8, and Austyn Long, 8, learn to use the memory function on the calculator. (Brian Branch-Price/AP Images)

When I was in the fifth grade, Fridays always meant math drills. Our teacher stood over us with a stopwatch in one hand and a gym whistle in the other. At the first piercing blast, we would rush to solve as many of the equations as we could before time was up. Our names and rankings (a rainbow scale starting at purple and progressing up to red) were posted prominently on the wall, and the top achievers won prizes.

It didn't take me long to fear the whistle. After most of my classmates—particularly the boys, as I recall—had advanced up to yellow and even orange, I lingered in the lowly blues. I'm not sure how much of this experience factored into my later struggles with math, but it probably didn't help.

Now a new study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, suggests that relatively simple twists on the familiar high-speed, high-pressure math quiz can level the field of classroom competition.

Research has long shown that males respond better to competitive incentives than their female counterparts. And there are plenty of studies that have found when boys and girls are put in head-to-head competition in which there's a single, timed opportunity to win, boys excel. For the new study, researchers explored what happens when students are given a second chance to compete, and how eliminating the time limits further changes the outcomes.

The experiment was conducted with more than 500 students at 24 Utah elementary schools. Boys and girls, each competing against a classmate, had to answer as many math questions as they could in a five-minute period. Prizes went to the winners.

In the first round of the timed competition, boys performed better than girls, reinforcing the conclusions of earlier studies. But when a second round was added, the advantage for boys disappeared. Here's where it gets even more interesting: When the competition was extended to three rounds, girls began to outscore boys. And the first-round advantage for boys disappeared if the time element was removed from that competition.

"One of the reasons girls don't do well in competitive settings is that they don't think they're as good as boys—but they really are," said Brigham Young University economist Joseph Price, one of the study's co-authors. "That's an information problem, rather than evidence that girls are destined for a certain outcome." (You can read my full Q&A with Price at EdMedia Commons.)

That "information problem" could also have another component, known to researchers as "stereotype threat." Put simply, if people are worried about confirming negative perceptions of a group of which they are a member, it can hurt their individual performance. The seminal study on stereotype threat was published in 1995 by Claude Steele (now dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education) and Joshua Aronson (associate professor of applied psychology at NYU), and found that black college students fared worse when they were asked to identify their race prior to taking a high-stakes exam. Numerous other researchers have since found similar results when asking people to identify themselves by a group—be it ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or age, just to list a few—and then testing them in a subject where there are stereotypes about their perceived inferior ability.

Jill Pipher, a professor at Brown University and past president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, said she was surprised by some of the new study's findings, particularly that the lack of advantage for boys persisted when the experiment was re-run two weeks later.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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