Despite advances in the education of women and girls worldwide, UNICEF reported in 2020 that female students still lag behind in terms of access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
Dr Lu Wang, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at Ball State University, Indiana, brings together research and theory on the subjects of gender, spatial ability, math anxiety and math achievement. Her conclusions on the role of spatial ability could be crucial to future policy making to improve access to STEM courses and careers for female students.
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Despite advances in the education of women and girls worldwide, UNICEF reported in 2020 that female students still lag behind in terms of access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. According to UNESCO, only 35% of STEM students are female. UNESCO reports that in Europe alone, there will be seven million new jobs in STEM sectors by 2025, but, unless the number of women entering STEM occupations can be improved, many of those jobs could go unfilled.
It has been suggested that understanding the role of spatial ability in mathematics education is critical to improving females’ access to STEM education and careers. Today we are going to talk about the work of Dr Lu Wang, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at Ball State University, Indiana, whose work brings together research and theory on the subjects of gender, spatial ability, math anxiety and math achievement. Dr Wang’s conclusions on the role of spatial ability could be crucial to future policy making to improve access to STEM courses and careers for female students.
To begin with, let’s unpack the concepts of spatial ability, math anxiety and math achievement and explore the controversies around these concepts as developed in Dr Wang’s paper.
Spatial ability is a collection of skills and capabilities used by humans to understand the spatial relationship between objects and space. Moreover, it includes the ability to reason and remember the relationships between objects and spaces and to be able to think critically about these spatial relationships in two-dimensional or three-dimensional space, i.e. could these relationships be improved in any way? Spatial ability also involves integrating various sources of spatial information in the environment and mentally manipulating spatial relationships in order to solve daily problems.
Math anxiety is a specific type of anxiety experienced in math-related situations. This could manifest as anxiety in a math test, i.e. cognitive anxiety or worrying about exam performance. Research into different subgroups of anxiety, such as trait anxiety, which refers to a generally anxious person, and state anxiety, which refers to anxiety brought on by experiences, is relevant here, as we shall see when we come to discuss gender differences and math anxiety later.
Math anxiety is associated with the negative emotional responses that some people feel when required to work with numbers. The emotions felt are sufficiently strong in some cases to mean the person is unable to perform math tasks. Some studies of math anxiety have concluded that it is strong enough to deplete working memory resources, disrupting attention and numerical representation.
Math achievement refers to the problem-solving skills and knowledge that grow as a person engages with formal and informal mathematical learning situations. Math achievement tests can range from simple addition and subtraction, to complex problem solving, algebra and geometry.
How does spatial ability link to math anxiety then? Well, as Dr Wang points out, experimental studies that link spatial skills to math anxiety are lacking. Theoretically it is considered safe to assume that low spatial ability contributes to high math anxiety, rather than the other way round and Dr Wang takes this approach. But, there is a need for longitudinal studies to clarify the current theoretical position.
When we look at the links between spatial ability and math achievement, however, there is an abundance of experimental and longitudinal studies of children, all of which suggest that spatial ability predicts math achievement.
This is well described in a 2014 study in which 102 American pre-school children aged between three and four years old were tasked at assembling interlocking Mega Blocs, a Lego-type building block toy, to match a three-dimensional model devised by the experimenters. The group consisted of 55 boys and 47 girls, each playing with the blocks by themselves. The results showed that the link between spatial ability and mathematical achievement existed even at this early age, and also confirmed previous studies showing that the link between spatial ability and mathematical achievement strengthens as children get older.
A longitudinal study from Finland of children aged between six and ten years showed that spatial ability measured in Kindergarten could be used to successfully predict the same child’s first-grade arithmetic achievement and continuing improvement up to the third grade. In a further study of 140 primary school children, early spatial ability was shown to predict their future abilities in multi-digit processing. These three studies are just a few examples from many studies reviewed that provide compelling evidence of a link between spatial ability and math achievement.
So what role, if any, does gender play in spatial ability, math anxiety and math achievement?
Looking at gender differences and spatial ability, neuro-imaging research has shown that male and female participants used different parts of their brains to perform a three-dimensional geometric problem. This difference suggests men might have an advantage in these types of tasks, as they use their ‘visual spatial working memory’, the part of the brain which temporarily holds and manipulates visuo-spatial information, e.g. shapes and colours.
As well as strong evidence that men outperform women in spatial ability tests, further research indicates that there is a link between spatial ability and gender differences in math anxiety. This could go some way to explaining why female students are disadvantaged and under-represented in STEM education and careers.
Looking at the relationship between gender and math anxiety in the literature, Dr Wang points out that differences are less clear cut. A study of over 750 German ninth- and tenth-grade students found that girls suffered higher levels of trait anxiety but there were no gender differences in the same study for state anxiety. However, there are a number of other studies which show higher levels of math anxiety experienced by female students, as well as confirming that these differences are most pronounced at secondary school age.
There are some studies which do not report a gender difference in math anxiety but, as Dr Wang points out, this could be due to the fact that subgroups of math anxiety, as previously discussed, are the focus of these studies. In addition, research shows that gender differences in math anxiety do not appear until middle and high school years. Therefore, studies of younger children may miss the early signs of math anxiety. Overall, Dr Wang’s review of past research indicates that girls and women are at a disadvantage in terms of math achievement because they experience higher levels of math anxiety.
Some research findings support gender differences in math achievement, while others do not. Older studies tend to show a greater gender variance of math achievement between males and females, but even studies from decades ago show only a small advantage for men and boys in terms of math achievement. Interestingly, tests of males and females undertaking simple maths show the smallest gender differences and more complex tests show larger variations. Studies of international samples show more varied gender differences in math achievement but, as Dr Wang points out, different cultures may well be influencing these results.
In this review Dr Wang brings together research on gender, spatial ability, math anxiety and math achievement in a unified model, and compares the different results and theories posited in the literature. As we have seen, males have an advantage in spatial ability, whilst females may experience greater math anxiety as a result of their spatial ability disadvantage, which could serve as a protective mechanism.
Based on this comprehensive review, Dr Wang concludes that spatial ability mediates the relationship between gender and math anxiety, and that math anxiety mediates the relationship between spatial ability and math achievement. In other words, gender has a direct effect on spatial ability, which in turn affects math achievement via its influence on math anxiety. The effects of math anxiety on math achievement may be reciprocal, meaning that there could be a feedback loop between the two factors.
Dr Wang’s model shows then that the key to reducing the gender inequality disadvantaging female students in maths is the improvement of spatial ability skills. This is backed up by empirical evidence of a 32-week spatial visualisation intervention. Children who participated the training programme improved their spatial language, spatial reasoning and two-dimensional mental rotation skills compared with those who were not in the intervention group.
It is suggested that there are two ways to mount an intervention aimed at improving spatial ability in early years. The first is more intervention training, and the other is to ‘spatialise’ the curriculum by incorporating spatial materials into the STEM curriculum. Either way, the evidence is strong that spatial ability can be improved by targeted intervention.
In conclusion, Dr Wang’s research moves beyond the synthesis of previous ideas on gender, spatial ability, math anxiety and math achievement by creating an integrated mediation model, where gender, spatial ability, math anxiety and math achievement present a series of potential causal mechanisms. Ultimately, Dr Wang recommends that the spatial ability of girls and women could be improved in educational settings, and that improved spatial ability is the key to improved math achievement and reduced math anxiety. This in turn could reduce the gender inequality in career opportunities; important knowledge for aspiring female scientists.
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