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.
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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.