Women are better at statistics than they think

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Women in statistics classes do better academically than men over a semester despite having more negative attitudes regarding their own abilities, according to our recent study in the Journal of Statistics and Data Science Education.

Using data from more than 100 male and female students from multiple statistics classes, my colleague and I assessed gender differences in grades over the course of a semester. As part of the study, students also answered surveys at the start and end of the semester that measured six different things: their fear of statistics teachers in general; their thoughts about the usefulness of statistics; their perceptions of their own mathematical ability; their anxiety in taking tests; their anxiety in interpreting statistics; and their fear of asking for help.

Overall, we found that students with more negative perceptions of their own mathematical ability had lower grades over the course of the semester. What’s even more interesting are the gender differences that emerged.

Even though men and women scored similarly on exams at the start of the semester, women finished the semester with almost 10% higher final exam grades. This was the case even though women had significantly worse attitudes about their mathematical abilities at the start of the semester than their male counterparts.

At the beginning of the semester specifically, women were more likely to rate their mathematical abilities as lower than men in the class and report more anxiety toward exams and toward interpreting statistical findings. However, each of these self-assessments improved over the course of the semester such that women’s attitudes didn’t differ from men’s by the end.

Meanwhile, the grades of male students who reported fear of statistics teachers or fear of asking for help decreased more sharply over the course of the semester. For men whose attitudes improved during the semester, grades also improved – though not as much as women’s grades improved.

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