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Is Test Anxiety Keeping Women Out of STEM Fields?


I invite you to review the article about the STEM gap between men and women. Using data from the PISA Test, The Programme for International Student Assessment assessing the knowledge and skills of 15 year old students worldwide, there were no significant differences in test scores between boys and girls. However, women make up 48% of the US workforce but only comprise 24% of workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. At a further review of the data, the authors believe that text anxiety has a large role in this discrepency. "Girls are slightly more likely to have strong motivation calibration than boys, and to think that their work in science class will be useful in the future. But remember that they also have higher levels of test anxiety. The authors think that the anxiety cancels out the motivation, ultimately affecting “the choices they make later in life.”

If test anxiety is a significant cause of women's choices not to continue their education in a STEM field, how do we correct this? What instructional strategies would you suggest to help students overcome their anxiety? And how does the author's use of motivation calibration explain any of these concerns? 

Kathy Tracey, Science and PD CoP Moderator.



S Jones's picture

I think it goes deeper than "test anxiety."   There's this:    and Jose Vilson's This is NOt a Test   

That said, anxiety pretty thoroughly blocks any other strategies to get folks learning well in math... 

Now, the article kind of confounds me.   "Motivation calibration" ??? I'm going to score better if I  have"the ability to know what motivation looks like in real life."   ???   I'm thinking it's just weird writing... and they mean that yes, to succeed at something as complicated as math that you need to know what "trying hard" actually means you have to do (as opposed to knowing what "being motivated looks like")... that you have habits like expecting to succeed because you know you're going to plan ahead, and read a bit extra and do a bit extra too... and not be satisfied with "completing the assignment."   

Those are the habits I think we should work on... while we are discerning anxiety's actual role and managing it accordingly.   I think if we focus on the anxiety, though, then we're missing too many other factors. 



finnmiller's picture

I would agree with Susan that it is not one thing, i.e., anxiety over testing, that limits the number of women going into STEM fields. In fact, we know that there are at least as many women in medical school -- maybe more-- than men these days. That means they had to take the Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) for entrance to medical school. Upon completion of medical school, I wonder how many women pass the medical boards compared to men. My guess is that the numbers are probably comparable.

In the past, I think we have been socialized to consider certain fields as more appropriate for men and others more suited to women. Although most people acknowledge this view is not valid, it probably still has an impact on the choices some people make.

What role test anxiety may play is an interesting question.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Kathy_Tracey's picture

While I absolutely agree that anxiety is not the full cause in the discrepency about women in STEM fields, but this data is striking. "On average across OECD countries, girls were about 13 percentage points more likely than boys to report they get very tense when they study. Girls were also 17 percentage points more likely to feel “very anxious” ahead of a test, even if they were well prepared."

I am curious about how we address the issue about testing anxiety? What instructional strategies can be used?