Split-Second Mental Calculations Add Up to Gender Gap in Math, Says UMass Amherst Professor

June 29, 1999

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AMHERST, Mass. - The ability to perform split-second mental calculations may explain why males routinely out-score females on standardized mathematics tests, but don’t do as well as females in mathematics classes, says James M. Royer, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts.

"This is an enormous puzzle that has perplexed the scientific community for years," Royer says. In a paper published in the July issue of the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology, Royer and a group of researchers suggest the reason is that males are faster at basic math-fact retrieval than females.

Royer says some facts are clear and apparently contradictory: males score an average of 40 points higher than females on the mathematics Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) used for college admissions; but females get better grades in high school and college, and high-school females take advanced mathematics courses as often as high- school males. Thus, their better grades aren’t associated with taking easier courses. There is also a greater range of scores between males who do well on the tests and those who do poorly than among females, Royer says.

Research shows that as early as the primary grades, boys begin completing mathematics calculations "in their heads," and over time they become better and faster at this task than girls, Royer says. That could explain why males perform better on the tests, where they spend less time than females solving each problem, allowing them to solve more, harder problems that boost scores. That advantage, however, disappears in a classroom situation where preparedness, good study habits, and behavior - areas where females tend to do better - are the keys to success, Royer says.

But how do males acquire the advantage in math-fact retrieval? "I think it’s practice and repetition," Royer says. Males begin earlier and learn to do the mental calculations faster and in a more automatic fashion, Royer says. That frees up both time and attention that is used to solve problems, he says. In situations where both males and females are given practice mental calculations, with daily, multiple problems to solve over several weeks, both males and females become faster and the difference begins to disappear, Royer says.

Another issue Royer discusses is why there is a larger difference between males who do well in tests, and those who don’t. Males, Royer says, are more likely to disengage from academics while females generally pay more attention to their studies.