How can teachers encourage more girls to study mathematics?

The Guardian reports that last week’s GCSE maths results – the first of the new and more challenging syllabus – show that boys have pulled further ahead of girls; 16.5% of male candidates were awarded at least an A grade this year, compared with 14.7% of female candidates.

What does this mean for the uptake of A-level maths among girls? At present, 65% of boys who get As in GCSE maths choose to take it at A-level, while only 43% of girls do so. Of all students, 39% of maths candidates, and just 27% of further maths candidates, are female. Many students are often unaware that top universities require double maths (maths and further maths) at A-level for maths, physics, computer science or engineering degrees, so this has negative consequences for their participation in Stem courses and careers.

As a maths teacher at a large sixth form college, I’m concerned by the disproportion of female students in the department. I spoke to three groups of girls in year 12 about their experiences; one not studying maths, those studying single maths, and those studying double maths. Based on their feedback, I have the following suggestions for encouraging more girls to take the subject at A-level.

Don’t perpetuate the idea of a ‘maths brain’

One student claimed who does not study maths said that she didn’t “have a maths brain” and was “not actually very good”. This was echoed by many who hadn’t taken A-level maths, despite getting A*s at GCSE. Curiosity, persistence and hard-work are the attributes of high performers, according to research by Deborah Eyre. Teachers need to praise these characteristics and avoid language that implies “natural ability”. Many teachers are aware of this but the students’ feedback suggests this hasn’t transferred effectively to the classroom, where success is often tied to speed.

Use competition with caution

Typically, girls respond less well to competition. Those I spoke to were demoralised by competition within lessons and in comparing test results. As such, teachers using competition in the classroom should design collaborative competitions where students have clear (and changing) group roles. We should avoid focusing on speed, applauding good teamwork instead.


Inspire us

Many in the double maths group said they found the subject to be uninspiring until year 10. Teachers need to get girls interested in maths before choosing their GCSEs and younger students should encounter a variety of challenging maths problems. Classrooms are full of students with a range of tastes in mathematics and it’s hard to predict which concepts will engage students’ curiosities, so let’s bring what we find beautiful about mathematics into the classroom.

Read more suggestions How can teachers encourage more girls to study mathematics?

Do you find these suggestions useful? Have you asked your female students about their feeling towards maths? Do you think you should? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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