A new survey sheds light on some of the factors contributing to preference for, and confidence in, math class

Are boys more confident than girls when it comes to math?

A new survey sheds light on some of the factors contributing to preference for, and confidence in, math class

A national survey of 16- to 18-year-olds shows that even among some of America’s top high school students, not only do boys favor math more than girls, but they also have more confidence in math class.

The survey, conducted by Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), gathered responses from 1,253 11th and 12th grade students from across the U.S. to determine their views regarding math and STEM.

The students queried are participants in this year’s MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, an annual internet-based, intensive math modeling contest organized by SIAM. Similar to the gender breakdown of the M3 Challenge, respondents of the survey were about 60 percent male and 40 percent female.

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“While there are not huge differences in male and female views on math and STEM, the survey shows there is still a marked gender difference when it comes to subject preferences and how students view their own strengths, as well as confidence levels in math class,” says Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge program director at SIAM.

According to the survey, 76 percent of male students describe their participation in math and science class as frequent and confident, whereas only 58 percent of females say the same. Twenty-eight percent of females refer to their math and science class participation as frequent but questioning, compared to 12 percent of males that used this description.

When it came to choosing a captain for their M3 Challenge team, 69 percent of the 502 mixed gender teams opted for a male leader. This was most often a group decision based on each student’s strengths or due to a natural evolution of roles as the team began working.

STEM preferences and strengths

“Regardless of gender, a strong majority of all survey respondents (89 percent of males and 76 percent of females) cited STEM subjects as their academic favorite, yet only 67 percent of females identified them as their strongest subjects, compared to 85 percent of males,” said Montgomery. “With 83 percent of males saying they plan to pursue STEM fields in college, compared to 69 percent of females, our survey confirms a myriad of earlier studies that show females are less likely than males to pursue higher education and careers in STEM.”

Now in its 15th year, M3 Challenge involves thousands of high school juniors and seniors committing 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in February/March to devise a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling. Nine winning teams from across the country have been selected and will have their submissions judged by a national panel of Ph.D.-level mathematicians. The competition final event — traditionally held in New York City in late April — has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, so judging will be done virtually this year.

Sponsored by Massachusetts-based MathWorks, a leading developer of mathematical computing software, M3 Challenge spotlights applied mathematics and technical computing as powerful problem-solving tools and viable, exciting professions, awarding $100,000 in scholarship prizes. This year’s challenge — which asked students to use math modeling to provide recommendations and solutions for the trucking industry’s turnover from diesel to electric, with help from industry association North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) — drew the participation of more than 3,500 students (760 teams).

Survey highlights

According to the survey, the majority of males and females took part in M3 Challenge for the same reason: they thought it would be a fun experience (cited by 55 percent of males and 51 percent of females) or they acted on a suggestion of a teacher (cited by 17 percent of males and 22 percent of females).

When it comes to the biggest influence that boosted the participants’ interest in math, both genders again responded similarly, with 39 percent claiming to be naturally good at math and a third crediting a teacher for inspiring their interest.

Regarding what they think would make more students interested in pursuing STEM education and careers, the top four answers selected were: good teachers to help spark an interest (70 percent), having a better understanding of real-world applications and value of STEM (57 percent), having a better understanding of the diversity of STEM-related career opportunities (45 percent) and being given more opportunities to personally experience STEM applications in practice in the workplace (44 percent).

Math views and practices

The survey also looked at the students’ preferences and practices when it comes to completing math assignments and problems. It found that if given the choice, most males and females (38 percent) prefer to work on projects in a team of three or more rather than working in pairs or individually. Just under a third said it didn’t matter to them and would “happily do what is assigned.”

In terms of math exams, slightly more males prefer open-ended questions than females (63 percent versus 52 percent), whereas slightly more females favor multiple choice questions than males (48 percent versus 37 percent).

The reasons for their preference? Those that favor multiple choice questions cited the fact that questions seem less daunting when they can use the process of elimination, and that they like black-and-white answers with no gray areas, as the top reasons. Participants who prefer open-ended math questions most often said they like that there is no fixed answer – a problem can be solved in different ways, and that they find it easier to use their mathematical thinking skills with open-ended questions.

More information about M3 Challenge and the 2020 challenge problem can be found at https://m3challenge.siam.org.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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