Mandatory math lessons don't inspire women to pursue STEM careers

"The results of our study underline the significance of systematic accompanying research before, during and after the introduction of educational reforms," said researcher Ulrich Trautwein.
By Brooks Hays   |   Updated March 28, 2017 at 3:33 PM
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March 28 (UPI) -- Policy makers and educators around the world are trying to encourage more students -- especially female students -- to pursue degrees in STEM fields. One strategy for doing so is called "curriculum intensification." But new research suggests the strategy fails to achieve the desired results.

Curriculum intensification involves the introduction of more mandatory hard math and science courses. Such a strategy was implemented in high schools in the German state of Baden-Württemberg in 2002. Education officials decided to require four math lessons per week during students' final two years of schooling -- up from the prior mandate of three lessons per week.

Because previous studies suggested exposure to high-level math courses encouraged enrollment in STEM courses at colleges and universities. But researchers at the University of Tübingen found the curriculum intensification reforms had the opposite effect for women.

Researchers analyzed the university enrollment patterns of Baden-Württemberg students before and after the 2002 reforms. Their findings -- detailed in the Journal of Educational Psychology -- showed female students were less likely to enroll in university math courses after the reforms.

The math abilities of both male and female students were improved by the reforms, and men were more likely to enroll in math courses once at college, but females became less confident in their abilities despite their improved performance.

"This may be because they'd more often selected courses with less math teaching before the reform and the higher performance level after the reform then led them to underrate their own accomplishments," lead study author Nicolas Hübner said in a news release.

The research suggests education policy makers need to reconsider the divergent effects of curriculum reforms on male and female students.

"Reforms in the education system in the past have often been rather like flying blind," said researcher Ulrich Trautwein, director of the LEAD Graduate School and Research Network. "The results of our study underline the significance of systematic accompanying research before, during and after the introduction of educational reforms."

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