Research has long shown that when boys and girls are put in head-to-head competition in which there’s a single, timed opportunity to win, boys excel. In a new study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization researchers had elementary school students in Utah compete to answer math questions. While boys did perform better in the first round – reinforcing the earlier findings – when a second round was added to the competition the advantage for boys disappeared. When the competition was extended to three rounds, girls began to outscore boys. And the first-round advantage for boys disappeared if the time element was removed from the competition. Joseph Price, an economist and assistant professor at Brigham Young University and one of the study’s authors, spoke with EWA about the findings and the potential implications for the education community.
1.Studies involving K-12 students are more common among social scientists. How unusual is it for economists to take this approach?
Using elementary school classrooms for this type of research is rather novel. For at least 10 years, economists have been using college students participating as volunteers in a laboratory setting to ask some of the same questions about how competition affects individual performance. It was those studies that motivated us to look at it in a real classroom setting with students doing tasks that are important to them. The questions the students see are similar to the ones they’ll have to answer on their end-of-the-year tests.
2. How difficult was it to get the schools to sign on?
We sent forms home to obtain parental consent. In terms of working with the schools, one of the things we had to offer was that these competitions actually motivate kids to answer lots and lots of math questions – perhaps as many as 50 in a single class period. The schools saw it as a means of getting them more comfortable for those high-stakes tests.
We used candy bars as rewards at first, but we’ve switched to cash prizes and books. We have another study looking at helping kids to eat healthy during school lunch, so we had to repent a little bit.
The neat thing is that teachers have access to even better prizes, like an extra recess period. Now that we’re running these experiments with high school students as part of a project funded by the Spencer Foundation, we’ll have to have bigger stakes. We’re expecting a mix of about 30 elementary, middle and high schools to take part in the study this spring.
3. One of the fundamental debates among researchers is whether differences in how boys and girls perform academically are biological or environmental. Where do your findings fit in that conversation?
We found gender inequities disappear very quickly if you do more than one round of a competition. In the time since we first conducted our experiment, there have been other studies that have shown similar things. One of the reasons girls don’t do well in competitive settings is they don’t think they’re as good as boys -- but they really are. That’s an information problem, rather than evidence that girls are destined for a certain outcome.
We invited high school students to participate in a math competition at BYU, and probably 90 percent of the kids who showed up were boys. There’s plenty of research that shows if you give a girl a choice of doing a task vs. a competition, they’ll choose the task. One of the takeaways from our study is that we need to do a better job encouraging girls to at least try the competition. Often they get used to it, and they’re just fine.
One of the ways we made the boys’ advantage go away easily was taking away some of the time pressures and telling the students it wasn’t a race – it was about getting the right answers. With some of the classrooms we used reading questions, and there we found no gender differences in how boys and girls responded to the competition. If you use a task that girls know they’re better at, there’s no gender gap for the outcome.
4. What’s next for your research?
What we’re doing with the new group of schools involves using the same kind of math competition to learn more about affirmative action. We’re looking at students with differences in perceived ability levels: for example, an honors class vs. a regular class. In terms of gender studies, I don’t know how we might push it into an adult setting where competition is really important and they have such high stakes, such as whether or not they get a performance bonus or a promotion. What actually got me started with the elementary schools is that the prizes didn’t have to be very big, and it was affordable. I don’t even know how you would do the study using adults in a workplace.
5. What do you hope teachers might take away from your study?
Competition should be viewed as one of a large set of tools used to encourage student effort. Any concern they might have that competition will put girls at a disadvantage, that concern should be short-lived. Once girls acclimate to these situations they should do very well.