Lisa A. Drzewiecki
Karen L. Westberg
University of Connecticut
Recent research indicates that the gap between male and female students’ mathematics achievement is gradually beginning to diminish (Gutbezahl, 1995); however, female students are still underrepresented in advanced mathematics classes as well as in careers involving mathematics (Kerr, 1994; Stage & Maple, 1996). Bright, young women continue to lock themselves out of mathematically related professions. In the study reported briefly here, a survey was administered to high school students to better understand how students’ attitudes toward mathematics differ by gender and by the grouping techniques used for mathematics instruction. More specifically, the survey examined the impact of cooperative grouping as an alternative to traditional mathematics instruction for improving females’ attitudes toward mathematics. It is important to note that cooperative grouping procedures—not a particular theoretical model of cooperative learning—were investigated.
When females enter high school, they take fewer and less advanced mathematics courses, self-selecting out of higher level mathematics classes. Because males enroll in more mathematics classes, they dominate professions that require higher level mathematical knowledge (Hanson, 1992). This is of particular concern to educators interested in the development of mathematical talent in capable young women. Several external and internal barriers have been cited in the literature for females’ limited pursuit of mathematics. For example, some parents’ and teachers’ beliefs about the relative unimportance of mathematics for females and expectations for females’ lower mathematical achievement have an impact on females’ interest in pursuing mathematics coursework (Dickens & Cornell, 1993; Hanson, 1992). In addition, female students report less confidence in their mathematical abilities than their male counterparts (Cohen & Kosler, 1991; Hanson, 1992), and males and females differ in their attributions for success and failure in mathematics (Leder, 1984; Subotnik, 1988).
Several interventions and programs have been proposed for improving female students’ attitudes toward mathematics, including the use of cooperative grouping procedures in mathematics classes (AAUW, 1992; Mulryan, 1992). The impact of this strategy has been examined at the elementary level, but only a few studies have investigated the effects of this strategy with high school students. Nichols and Miller (1994) examined the attitudes and achievement of algebra II students who received instruction in cooperative groups for 18 weeks, followed by instruction in a traditional manner for 18 weeks. While the researchers found that the students’ attitudes were more positive and their achievement was higher when enrolled in classes that used cooperative grouping, the use of multiple treatments with the same subjects threatens the findings of their study. Additional investigations have been needed to address the impact of grouping procedures on students’ attitudes toward mathematics at the high school level.
In this study, survey research was used to collect data about high school students’ attitudes toward mathematics. A 37 item survey was developed (Drzewiecki, 1996) to address several factors cited in the literature that reportedly affect students’ attitudes toward mathematics. The survey contains 15 open-ended items and 22 items to which students respond on a 5-point scale. For example, “I like being able to work independently on a math problem” was followed by five responses, ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The 22 items correspond to six categories: general attitudes, usefulness, confidence, parental influences, participation, and attitudes toward group work. The survey was administered to students who were participating in traditionally grouped classes and students who were in cooperatively grouped classes.
The sample consisted of 218 (107 males, 111 females) students enrolled in the mathematics classes taught by four teachers in a suburban high school in the Northeast. The students were enrolled in algebra II, geometry, or pre-calculus classes, with the majority enrolled in algebra II classes. Two teachers instructed their mathematics classes in a traditional manner by having students solve mathematical problems independently. The other two teachers used a cooperative grouping procedure in which students worked in groups of two to four students to complete assignments. Again, it should be noted that cooperative grouping—not a specific theoretical model of cooperative learning—was used by two of the teachers. A chi square analysis indicated that there were no significant differences in the previous academic grades of the two groups of students, x2 = 3.72 (4), p > .05; therefore, students in the traditionally grouped classes and the cooperatively grouped classes were assumed to be equivalent in ability. The survey was administered to the students in the middle of the academic year when the students had been enrolled in their respective mathematics classes for several months.
The survey findings are presented below. All descriptive and inferential analyses were conducted using the StatView (1992) software program.
Attitudes Toward Mathematics by Gender and Instructional Method
The first research question addressed the general attitudes toward mathematics of students who were receiving mathematics instruction in traditional versus cooperative groups. A 2 x 2 analysis of variance indicated that there were no significant main effects for gender and instructional method (p > .05); however, there was a significant interaction between gender and instructional method with regard to students’ general attitudes toward mathematics, F (1, 203) = 4.902, p < .05. Female students in the mathematics classes with traditional instruction had more positive general attitudes toward mathematics than the females in the cooperatively grouped classes, and the males in the cooperatively grouped classes had higher attitudes than the males in the traditionally grouped classes.
In addition to students' general attitudes, the relationship between gender and instructional method (traditional versus cooperative grouping) with regard to students' confidence in their mathematical abilities was investigated. A 2 x 2 analysis of variance revealed no main effect for instructional method (p > .05), a significant effect for gender, F (1, 214) = 4.84, p < .05, and a significant interaction between gender and instructional method with regard to students' reports of confidence in their mathematical abilities, F (1, 209) = 5.45, p < .05. Females in the cooperatively grouped classes reported less confidence in their mathematical ability than the females in the traditionally grouped classes, while the reverse of this was found for males.
Another category on the survey was students' attitudes toward working in groups. A significant difference was found between the traditionally grouped and cooperatively grouped mathematics classes, F (1, 210) = 58.52, p < .05, and a significant interaction was found between gender and instructional group with regard to attitudes toward working in groups, F (1, 210) = 5.55, p < .05. Males in the cooperatively grouped classes had the most positive attitudes toward working in groups, and females in the traditional classes had the least positive attitudes toward working in groups. No differences in gender and instructional method (p > .05) were found on the other categories represented on the instrument (participation in mathematics classes, attitudes toward usefulness of mathematics, and perceptions about parental influence).
Attitudes Toward Mathematics by Gender and Previous Grades
A few analyses were conducted in which the instructional method was disregarded. The relationship between gender and students’ previous academic grades in mathematics classes with regard to students’ general attitudes toward mathematics was analyzed. A 2 x 2 analysis of variance revealed a significant interaction between gender and previous grades with regard to students’ general attitudes toward mathematics, F (4, 197) = 2.691, p < .05. Specifically, male students had more positive general attitudes toward mathematics than females at each grade point average with the exception of those who reported a B average in previous mathematics courses. Of the students with a B average, females had more positive general attitudes toward mathematics.
Attributions for Success in Mathematics by Gender and Instructional Method
Do female and male high school students’ attributions for success in mathematics differ by gender and in traditional versus cooperatively grouped classes? Students selected responses on the survey to indicate why they are successful in mathematics. Their responses corresponded to the following attributions: effort, luck, task difficulty, or ability. A chi square analysis revealed significant differences between male and female students’ attributions for success in mathematics, x2 =10.5 (3), p < .05, when grouping was not considered; namely, 49% of the males attribute success to ability and 45% of the females attribute success to effort. In addition, there were no significant differences in the attributions for success by males who were enrolled in traditional versus cooperatively grouped mathematics classes, x2 =2.302 (3), p > .05. However, significant differences were found in the attributions for success by females in the traditional versus cooperative grouping classes, x2 = 7.84 (3), p < .05. More female students attributed their success to ability when they were enrolled in traditional, not cooperatively grouped, mathematics classes. Specifically, 19% of the females in cooperatively grouped mathematics classes attributed their success to ability, but 41% of the females in traditional mathematics classes attributed their success to ability.
The results from this survey were interesting, and some of the findings were quite surprising. The results suggest that cooperative grouping may not be as advantageous for females as is traditional instruction for promoting positive, general attitudes toward mathematics. In addition, the results indicate that cooperative grouping in high school mathematics classes may not be a better method for helping females gain greater confidence in their mathematical abilities. The gender differences in attributions for success in mathematics and students’ attributions for success in traditional versus cooperative groups are particularly intriguing. These findings suggest that participation in group learning for the majority of the class time in mathematics classes may actually undermine female students’ motivation! Because the study was limited to a sample of students located in just one large high school, it would be inappropriate to generalize the results to other settings and populations. Nevertheless, if teachers have been using group learning as a strategy for improving female students’ attitudes toward mathematics, perhaps they need to re-examine their use of this strategy and, at the very least, survey their own students about their preferences for instructional grouping procedures.
On the open-ended items on the survey, the students enrolled in the classes using cooperative grouping procedures indicated that, in general, they enjoyed working in cooperative groups because they were able to provide help and receive help from their peers, share ideas on solving mathematics problems, check answers with other students and, ultimately, understand the material more easily. A future examination of the students who give and receive help within the cooperative groups (for example, the number of students and the abilities of the students), and if any gender differences are related to this, may offer some explanation as to why females report less confidence in their mathematics abilities and lower general attitudes toward mathematics when participating in classes that use cooperative grouping for instruction. Clearly, additional investigations are needed to address issues related to the findings in this study.