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Math Education

Boys and Girls Together

One of the longest-standing truisms in the math biz is the assertion that boys are better than girls at math. There have been countless studies wherein a group of students are given given a large set of problems and must do as many as they can in a five (or ten or twenty) minute period. The boys as a group always do more problems than the girls do.

Ergo, boys are better than girls at math, so they say.

Recently, however, there have been some intriguing studies that imply the situation is much more complex than this.

For example, although boys do better than girls in timed tests, as described above, if the same boys and girls are given a second timed test, the difference disappears; the two sexes do equally well. More intriguing still, if the groups are given a third timed test, girls will generally do better than the boys. Interestingly, even if there is only a single round of problems, the girls do as well as the boys if the test is explicitly made to be not a competition. This could be achieved by something as simple as telling everyone that although they have five minutes in which to do as many problems as they can,  “this is not a race.”

Other studies have shown that although boys do more problems than girls in timed tests, they tend to get fewer of them right; the girls do fewer but better.

What is clear is that the difference between boys and girls math scores is not as simple as “boys are better than girls.” In fact, there is no intrinsic difference in strict math ability. Indeed, girl’s tendency to be slower but more accurate in timed tests are more consistent with math in the real world, where you are rarely timed, but getting good results is paramount.

All of this to say that if your daughter is having trouble with math, there is no reason to think that, with proper help (ahem), she can’t improve to whatever degree of excellence she wants.


Universal Truths

One of the joys of teaching math:

Tips & Tricks

Writing math right

Little things get in your way when doing math. Handwriting, for instance.

I was looking at a student’s homework not long ago and saw this line:

130611 Handwriting Figure 1

And, further down the page, this one:

130611 Handwriting Figure 2

Eh, what? Neither of these made much sense; in what universe does 22 equal 4?

Looking at the problems more closely, it became clear that the second “2” in the first equation was supposed to be a “z” and that what I took to be a  “1” was actually an “l” (that is, an “el”). What the student meant was

130611 Handwriting Figure 3

Your handwriting probably is getting in the way of your math more than you know, especially during tests. How many times has your eye seen “22,” then had to backtrack and reassemble it into “2z?” The time you spent translating your handwriting could have been spent doing the math problem.


If you do math a lot (and, well, who doesn’t?), you should make your handwriting as clear and unambiguous as possible. If your t’s consistently look like a plus signs, it’s probably time to figure out a new way to write t’s.

Here are the characters that I changed in my own handwriting back in high school.

130611 Handwriting Figure 4

It’s not a long list and the new character shapes easily became habitual.

And it pays off. Now, when sweating over the last problem on your math exam, with the end of the period breathing down your nape, you will at least always know, at a glance, just what you’re looking at.

Try it! And let me know how it works for you.