NAU study finds women, while trying to keep up, actually earn better grades in statistics classes

Sometimes, thinking you’re bad at math can really help your grade in a math class.

Future Business Women of America club
Kinsey Ottaway, second from right, with the NAU Future Business Women of America at a conference

It’s not a magic bullet or a trick, said Rick Szal, a statistics professor in The W. A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University. Rather, the phenomenon that he has witnessed anecdotally and data has backed up has consistently yielded the same result, and it’s one that has a gender divide: Women are less confident in their abilities to do math than their male counterparts. Women are also more likely to get a higher grade than their male counterparts.

“My conclusion from that is women get more out of the class than men,” Szal said. “They tend to work harder in the class because of that anxiety they feel in the outset.”

Szal and a couple of students through the years have studied how students use supplemental instruction (SI) in their statistics class, typically one of the hardest classes for business students and one that all FCB students, major and minor, are required to take and pass with at least a C grade. The trend follows a similar pattern: Men are more confident than women going into math classes. Women express fear of the subject and worry they won’t do well. Because of that inferiority, whether real or perceived, women go to more SI sessions, stay after class and go to Szal’s office hours to ask questions and learn the material.

What all that extra effort translates into is a higher grade and a better understanding of the material.

It did for Kinsey Ottaway, a junior accounting major who has taken Szal’s class—and worried about it, worked hard, got extra help and earned an A—and now is helping him with the next step of this research. Ottaway, who is funded by the Interns-to-Scholars Program in NAU’s Undergraduate Research, is designing and distributing a survey among Szal’s business statistics students that will ask questions like how they feel about STEM courses and whether they were encouraged or discouraged from taking such courses; what resources they have to help in those courses; and other demographic questions. The hope is to break down even further what leads to students’ feelings about “hard” classes and how to overcome that self-doubt.

Ottaway, who initially approached Szal about being a grader for him, grew interested in his research reading the paper he and another undergrad published two years ago about SI.

Rick Szal
Rick Szal

“It resonated with me because I went into this very class anxious and very scared because of the uncertainty of the coursework, the grading, the professor, everything,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how it personally affects me and my female counterparts. But, while it’s a little unfair that we have more anxiety going into certain academic courses, it helps us to be stronger and have better time management.”

The purpose of this research isn’t to say one gender is better at math or one gender is better at learning. Rather, Szal said, it’s to highlight inconsistencies he sees and where he sees men are not keeping up with the work in class, in part because of a feeling of superiority. He wants all of his students to understand the material and get a good grade, but semester after semester he sees women students being far more likely to seek out additional help. At least some of that is to make up for their (again, real or perceived) lack of knowledge coming into the course.

“I just want people to recognize this is what’s happening,” Szal said. “I would like women to recognize their position, that they’re not imposters or lucky, they’re intelligent, and they need to just keep working the way they’re working.”


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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 |

NAU Communications