Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

Gender Differences in Mathematics Achievement: An Exploratory Study at a Primary School in Kwazulu-Natal

Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

Gender Differences in Mathematics Achievement: An Exploratory Study at a Primary School in Kwazulu-Natal

Article excerpt

The study examined whether there was a significant gender gap in mathematics achievement, and the nature of the gender gap. It also investigated factors associated with the differential performance of girls and boys in the mathematics class. The site for this study was a rural primary school in KwaZulu-Natal. Quantitative data was drawn from grade 6 mathematics achievement test results conducted in 2008 and 2009. In addition, individual semi-structured interviews and focus group interviews were conducted with 8 students (male = 4; female = 4) from the 2009 cohort of grade 6 students. The findings in the study revealed a gender gap in mathematics achievement in favour of girls. Key factors associated with the gender gap included the issue of boys and masculinities, the dynamics of classroom cultures, and the differential attitudes to learning in respect of boys and girls in the mathematics class.

Key words: gender, mathematics, South Africa, mixed methods


Much has been written about gender and academic performance in mathematics. There have been studies conducted in countries of the North that have shown that boys performed better than girls in mathematics (Kaiser-Messmer, 1994; Fennema, 2000). Fennema (2000) in her study showed that gender differences existed in learning complex mathematical tasks in middle and secondary schools in the USA. Home (2003) found that although achievement tests showed no significant difference in achievement outcomes, there have been differences shown in thinking. The study conducted with children in grades 1 to 3 showed that, in addition and subtraction, girls used counting strategies while boys were more likely to move to more sophisticated strategies. More recently, Fryer and Levitt (2006) found that the gender gap in mathematics not only existed in the early elementary school years but had also grown in each grade. In the past two decades or so, there has been an alternate body of research that has shown that the gender differences in mathematical performance are diminishing (Hyde, Fennema & Lamon, 1990; Frost, Hyde & Fennema, 1994). Ferie, Moran and Lutkus (2005) found that the gap has been narrowing in the U.S.A. for the last several decades.

Research in Australia indicates that gender differences in mathematics achievement are reducing and shifting (Forgasz, Leder & Vale, 2000). Vale (2009) found that many studies conducted between 2000 and 2004 in Australasia showed no significant differences in achievement in mathematics between males and females, though males were more likely to obtain higher mean scores. Further, findings favouring females were evident more often in studies of primary students' achievement, particularly in New Zealand. Findings that favoured males occurred in studies conducted at secondary school level.

An interesting body of international literature suggests that the gender gap in mathematics achievement needs to be re-examined, as female students perform better than male students in primary schools (for example: Arnot, David, & Weiner 1999; Hydea, & Mertzb, 2009). Studies done by Arnot, David & Weiner (1999) in London noted that female students' achievement in mathematics increasingly showed that the gender gap was closing. Female students were viewed as doing very well in mathematics classes. A large scale study in the U.S.A. by Hydea & Mertzb (2009) revealed that girls have now reached parity with boys in mathematics performance, including at high school where a gap existed in earlier decades. Furthermore, girls are doing better than boys even for tasks that require complex problem solving.

There has been limited research on the issue that has emanated from the African context. In Nigeria, gender-achievement studies include Abiam and Odok (2006) who found no significant relationship between gender and achievement in number and numeration, algebraic processes and statistics. These researchers, however, found the existence of a weak significant relationship in geometry and trigonometry. …

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