High School Students' Math Beliefs and Society

Article excerpt


Research has pointed to schools and society as environmental influences on student beliefs about mathematics. This article highlights findings from two activities designed to elicit high school students' beliefs, particularly those related to gender. As a result of the activities, females in upper level classes rated themselves as having less confidence than males. In addition, viewing a movie clip was sufficient for some students to modify their descriptions of someone who is good at mathematics.


My prior experiences with public perceptions about what it means to be good at mathematics have led me to investigate the role that society and the media play in high school students' confidence and beliefs. It seems as though some sort of justification or clarification is necessary when a female appearing to be "normal" can do mathematics. Evidently those who succeed in mathematics are males who lack social skills. I am interested in what these stereotypes are saying about those of us who enjoy mathematics. Additionally, I am concerned that similar situations may prohibit both male and female students from pursuing their interests in mathematics.


As a female and former classroom teacher who has found success in mathematics, I have witnessed the wide range of beliefs about mathematics. Prior research on beliefs about mathematics has mainly focused on students' previous experience with mathematics (Bandura, 1986; Pajares, 1996; Weiner, 1986). Like Mcleod (1992) I will consider confidence as a belief about one's competence in mathematics. There is considerable anecdotal and research evidence that girls and women generally express less confidence about their mathematical capabilities than boys and men (Dweck, 1986; Willis, 2000). The subject of mathematics is unique because failure often does not lead to embarrassment. Instead students have been known to refer to their inabilities with a sort of pride (Damarin, 2000). On the other hand, those who succeed or hold some confidence in their mathematics abilities are viewed as outcasts. Research on the mathematically able has described them as a marked category in the form of deviance from the larger society (Damarin, 2000). It appears the understanding of mathematics has been placed out of the reach of most students.

To find out more about student beliefs and mathematics, it is worthwhile to consider what might contribute to them. Some prior research has pointed to schools as influencing or even promoting these beliefs. Several sources of educational influences on students' beliefs about mathematics have been identified. Valerie Walkerdine (1998) examined the stereotypes placed on girls within mathematics classrooms. In another article Walkerdine (1989) attempted to tell a stow of female classroom success by explaining that it is necessary to avoid being caught in the empiricist trap of proving the mathematical equivalence of girls. Sue Willis (1995) explained a social typification of girls' success in mathematics as due to hard work and rule-following which can play a role in teacher behaviors. Leedy, Lalonde, and Runk (2003) discovered that even in a mathematically talented group of students, girls demonstrated a lack of confidence in their abilities. Other authors have discussed how society might play a role in students' mathematical beliefs. Suzanne Damarin (2000) described how mathematicians are portrayed in the media and how this influences the mindset of teenagers and young professionals. Similarly, Jo Boaler (2002) criticized researchers and popular media for their explanation of differences in the mathematical abilities of boys and girls. Dorothy Nelkin (1986) found that Nobel Prize scientists are portrayed as 'socially removed, apart from and above most human occupations.' In addition, Tapia and Marsh (2004) explained that children's peer cultures may assist in determining their choices. …


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