Attitudes toward Mathematics of Precalculus and Calculus Students

By Tapia, Martha; Moldavan, Carla C. | Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Attitudes toward Mathematics of Precalculus and Calculus Students


Tapia, Martha, Moldavan, Carla C., Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics


Introductory college mathematics courses comprise a large percentage of course offerings in postsecondary institutions, serving over half of all students who ever study mathematics in college (Cohen, 1995). In a report of mathematics classes offered in fall, 2000, 14% of the sections were remedial and another 38% were introductory level, including precalculus (Lutzer & Maxwell, 2000). Many students are ill-equipped for introductory college math courses. Many degree programs in non-technical fields require math prerequisites, which are often stumbling blocks for students.

A matter of scientific interest is the nature of students' attitudes toward mathematics and the relationship between attitudes and achievement in mathematics, especially as it relates to the achievement gap in mathematics between males and females, and the lack of interest by females in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors (STEM). In the past decade the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have invested nearly $90 million to fund hundreds of projects aimed at increasing the participation of girls and women in STEM (AAUW, 2004). During the past few years, SAT math scores indicate that the gender gap is narrowing because females on average gained 19 points while males gained 13 (Hoover, 2001).

Explanations of the math gender gap have focused on social and cognitive differences. Males do better on multiple choice tests in mathematics, while girls are better on open-ended or essay questions that involve verbal skills (Beller & Gafni, 2000). Boys have better spatial ability (Collins & Kimura, 1997; Nordvik & Amponsah, 1998). Differential treatment of males and females in math classes has also been used to explain the difference, because females are not supported in math aspirations by their instructors and their parents (Hammrich, 2002). Efforts to create equal educational opportunities for females are primarily based on changing the attitudes of females about the study of math and pursuit of technical careers, because there are only social impediments to women entering technical fields and professions. Some researchers maintain that it is important to foster safe and nurturing environments in order to encourage female students' success in science and mathematics (Allen, 1995; Hammrich, 2002; Mann, 1994).

Research has cast doubt on explanations that account for cognitive differences, because achievement in mathematics courses in middle school and high school is virtually the same for males and females (Davis-Kean, Eccles, & Linver, 2003). Data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) also confirm that at all grade levels there is little difference in the overall performance of males and females (Campbell, Reese, O'Sullivan, & Dossey, 1996; Kenney & Silver, 1997). Performance in specific content area also reflects little difference between males and females; the only statistically significant gender difference appeared at grade 12 for items in the areas of measurement and geometry, with males having statistically significantly better performance. NAEP (Kenney & Silver, 1997) reported little overall difference between males and females for those who enrolled in core college preparatory courses, with the exception of calculus, which was taken more frequently by males. These data reflect a national trend toward increased course taking by high school students in response to increased graduation requirements, and they attest to a change in the achievement of females. NAEP data regarding affect toward mathematics showed that males in grades 8 and 12 were significantly more likely than females to agree that they liked mathematics, but there was little or no difference between males and females in their perception of being good at mathematics. Students at all grade levels appeared to view mathematics as having considerable social and economic utility. …

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