A new study out of the University of Missouri suggests that boys’ impulsive behavior in the classroom could be one of the reasons behind their improved math ability. The study followed 300 children from grade school to 6th grade and looked at how they developed their mathematics skills and communicated their knowledge. The authors found that although girls tended to have better math skills when they entered school and for the first several grades, boys tended to catch up — and in many cases surpass them by 6th grade. Their more slap-dash approach to computation and a willingness to be wrong could be a few of the reasons why.
Girls and boys started grade school with different approaches to solving arithmetic problems, with girls favoring a slow and accurate approach and boys a faster but more error prone approach. Girls’ approach gave them an early advantage, but by the end of sixth grade boys had surpassed the girls. The MU study found that boys showed more preference for solving arithmetic problems by reciting an answer from memory, whereas girls were more likely to compute the answer by counting. Understanding these results may help teachers and parents guide students better.
One of the researchers, Drew Bailey, who recently received a Ph.D. in psychological science from MU, said that boys are more willing to give wrong answers, drawing on similar problems encountered in the past and making guesses rather than following a regular series of steps to arrive at the correct result. Over time, this practice of making connections could have allowed boys to eventually overtake girls in accuracy, even though initially, girls gave more correct answers than their male peers.
The difference was particularly marked in 2nd and 6th grades. Although by the second grade boys gave more answers than girls, in general, their answers were more frequently wrong. Girls tended to give fewer but more accurate solutions. By the 6th grade, boys were still calling out more answers, but they also had more correct answers than their female classmates.
“Developing mathematical skill may be part ‘practice makes perfect’ and part ‘perfect makes practice,’” Bailey said. “Attempting more answers from memory gives risk-takers more practice, which may eventually lead to improvements in accuracy. It also is possible that children who are skilled at certain strategies are more likely to use them and therefore acquire more practice.”
David Geary, the co-author of the study and a Professor of Psychological Science at MU, said that parents can overcome the reluctance of students to call out answers by helping them become more comfortable with numbers and elementary mathematical concepts.