Why you’re still more likely to dislike math even if you have high grades in it…

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…and how this partially explains low female representation in STEM.

In this post, I will draw on the results from my second study about one’s achievements: even though our achievements influence what we like and find important to us, we are not as simple as “you like what you’re good at”, and this can be insightful in understanding why female students steer away from STEM subjects.

How do students decide what they like and dislike, or see as important and/or useful?

One idea from expectancy value theory (see my previous post on it) is that students look at their exam results, feedback from their assignments, and report cards, and see what subjects they achieve higher at.

On top of that, other researchers also coined dimensional comparison theory, saying that we always compare our experiences in different domains, especially internally: how are my math grades compared to my language grades?

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This includes thoughts like looking at their results  in math and thinking, “well, my achievement is higher in language with equal efforts. Why do I need to invest more in math, then?”

A lot of studies also reported a lot of girls describing this assumption: they find their achievement in language is higher than in  math, and thus have higher confidence and more eagerness to engage in language.

In other words, we take our achievement experiences in school altogether to form an idea about which subjects are areas where we’re more likely to succeed at, and in which areas we won’t. Most of the time, this motivates us to do more (or less) of one thing.

Is it really what we see in our data?

In my recent study, alongside many other studies, we did observe this phenomenon.

We asked Finnish 8th graders (13-year-olds) about their thoughts on math and Finnish language and compared it to their 7th grade achievement. After comparing their achievement to their own report about what they think about math and language, we found that students who had higher grades seemed to like the same subjects they’re good at –  and to some extent, those with higher grades in Finnish language also reported that they like math less.  

This confirms that students do take their achievements in different subjects seriously, and it impacts how they feel about these subjects. 

But wait – would this pattern still hold true if we compare reports between female and male students?

Other factors beating individual achievements 

As we added “gender” into the equation, we observed that female students have higher grades compared to male students, both in math and Finnish language. But somehow, they still like math less compared to male students, and even see it as more burdensome.

On top of that, we saw that female students report more association to the perception of math as less interesting and more stressful, regardless of their previous achievement in math.

This result most likely points to students seeing other influences linked to “being a girl” or “being a boy” as weighing more on their thoughts about which subject they like or don’t like – more than the effect of their own influence.

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Perhaps, especially as students, we consider other sources of information – say, what our friends and teachers believe, nudge us into, or tell us about – as the most important influence in shaping our own values, beliefs, and finally, our decisions. It might also mean that these social factors outweigh our own achievements, as our study results seem to hint.  

If we apply it more broadly, this also possibly demonstrates the power of social factors in shaping individuals. No matter how high the individual achievement of a girl may have, if important people around her showed that she does not belong in STEM, or showed that women’s identity and goals are too far from what professional work in STEM allows, then this could easily steer one away from liking, engaging in and pursuing this path. Even more so, if one would see that there are very limited opportunities or encouragements to go towards this path as a woman, the less likely they would  look at their individual achievement.

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Of course, we should keep in mind that these are generalizations that would not always take place in  each individual case – but it should inform us about how students themselves, and how we see ourselves, too. 

Now I want to hear from you: Does this speak to your experience? Have you ever shied away from a certain thing even though you’re good at it? Did you feel like your sense of belonging is more important than your skills? Or do you have a completely different story? Let us know in the comments below!

And if you want to read more about expectancy value theory (explaining why we choose to do things we do) and dimensional comparison theory (how we compare ourselves to understand ourselves), you can click the links – or read my  most recent article once it is published (the link will be published here as well).

Suggested Readings:

Eccles, J.S, Wigfield, A. (2020). From expectancy-value theory to situated expectancy-value theory: A developmental, social cognitive, and sociocultural perspective on motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101859

Möller, J., & Marsh, H. W. (2013). Dimensional comparison theory. Psychological Review, 120(3), 544–560. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032459

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