Want More Women in Geoscience? Consider Their Math Attitudes

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Molly M. Jameson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Northern Colorado
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Julie Sexton, Ph.D.
Research Associate
University of Colorado Boulder
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Jennifer M. Wenner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Professional photo of Sibrina Collins
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Sibrina Collins, Ph.D.
Executive Director of STEM Education
College of Arts and Sciences, Lawrence Technological University

Geoscience has made concerted efforts to increase the number of women entering and graduating from undergraduate geoscience programs, but despite these efforts, the number has remained about 40% for the last 20 years.1

Cultural norms within geoscience may communicate a masculine and exclusionary environment that is unwelcoming to women. For example, geoscience department websites, which are important for communicating culture, more frequently depict men in department photographs.2 Interviews with faculty and students from six geoscience departments indicate exclusionary gendered narratives that reinforce gender norms (e.g., men are more suited to geoscience work).3 Additionally, female students may encounter hostile climates and microaggressions in geoscience classrooms and field experiences.4 Hostile sexism is reported more frequently by students and faculty in geoscience departments with a lower percentage of undergraduate female students, possibly suggesting that the hostile climate may be associated with students not selecting or not persisting in some departments.4 Given the central role of interest in selecting a geoscience major,5 it is also possible that women experience lower interest in geoscience than men. This leads to the question of why women might be less interested in geoscience? One possible yet overlooked barrier to women entering and persisting in geoscience is the role of math in geoscience and women’s math attitudes.

Math Attitudes as a Barrier to Science

Students who perform well in math, value math, and are interested in math tend to be attracted to science disciplines.6 The opposite is also true; those with more negative attitudes and performance in math typically avoid science. Though geoscience is often perceived by students as using less math than other sciences,7,8 the field requires significant mathematical skills and knowledge. In fact, geoscience majors are typically required to complete math courses through calculus.9,10 This could prove problematic for students with more negative math attitudes.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of societal and systemic issues (e.g., stereotypes, educational inequality), women tend to report significantly more negative math attitudes than men. This includes high levels of math anxiety, low levels of math self-efficacy (i.e., confidence), low levels of interest in math, and low math motivation.11,12 As previously mentioned, more negative math attitudes are associated with avoidance of science classes and majors. The more negative math attitudes of women than men could contribute to the lower number of women than men in science fields overall. It could also explain the lower number of women in geoscience specifically, particularly given the relevance of mathematical skills and knowledge in geoscience. As such, the role of math-specific attitudes in women’s experiences, attraction, and interest in geoscience is an important yet previously unstudied area in geoscience.

Geoscience Success Lessons: Interventions for Introductory Geoscience Students

Our grant team of women researchers in educational psychology, geoscience, and science education sought to explore this possibility in our project “Math Skills and Affective Domain Interventions to Improve Success for Female Students in Geoscience Classes” (NSF IUSE #1834666 and #1949737). The first goal of our project was to develop and implement interventions to address math as a barrier to geoscience through emphasizing affective topics (i.e., math anxiety, self-efficacy, interest, metacognition, goal-setting, and stereotypes). These affective topics were selected based on research in educational psychology, psychological sciences, and geoscience education. We had three interventions: 1) the affective-domain lessons we developed, which we named Geoscience Success Lessons (GSL), 2) a modified version of existing math content lessons called The Math You Need, When You Need It (TMYN),10 3) and a hybrid with three GSL and three TMYN lessons (we called this the Blended intervention).

All of the lessons in each of the three interventions had three parts for students:

  1. Part One: Online Reading. The affective domain lessons in the GSL and Blended lessons include learning stories of students with positive or negative levels of the specific affective topic, content knowledge to help students understand the affective topic, and practice steps to help students develop a more positive approach to the affective component. The math lessons in TMYN and Blended lessons include math used specifically in geoscience classes and showed how the math was used in geoscience.
  2. Part Two: Formative and Summative Assessment of Reading. The online lesson is followed by a formative and summative assessment of students’ content knowledge from the online reading in Part One. Students receive immediate feedback on the formative assessment. The formative and summative assessments for the affective domain lessons in the GSL and Blended interventions include new learning stories and several items about the learning stories. The formative assessments for math lessons in TMYN and Blended interventions have math problems for students to solve.
  3. Part Three: Application Activity. The application activity provides students an opportunity to apply the concepts they learned in the online reading. These activities provide students with an opportunity to have agentic ownership in improving their math attitudes and skills (e.g., writing about one’s anxiety or completing math problems contextualized in geoscience). The application activity can be conducted synchronously during class time (in-person or remotely) or asynchronously and outside of class time.

Our second goal was to research how the three interventions affected introductory geoscience students’ math attitudes, math performance, and intentions to pursue a geoscience major. We also wanted to examine if there were differences by gender. Our hope is that by addressing math as a barrier, we can improve women’s interest in geoscience, potentially encouraging them to take additional geoscience courses and/or select it as a major. Students completed baseline surveys prior to engaging with the interventions and completed post-surveys at the conclusion of the interventions. The baseline and post-survey measures were composed of published scales to assess math anxiety, math self-efficacy, geoscience self-efficacy, and geoscience interest (along with several other measures not yet analyzed). These scales are all brief surveys with Likert-type response options (click here to access these scales). We also collected student responses to the application activities in each lesson in all of the interventions. Some data have been analyzed, with summary information below, and tell a clear story of the importance of math attitudes in women students in introductory geoscience.

Student Voices: Integrated Math Anxiety Experiences

To better understand the math experiences of students in introductory geoscience classes, we explored students’ written narratives completed during our math anxiety lesson that was part of the GSL and Blended interventions.13 During this lesson, students reflected on their math anxiety (regardless of anxiety level) and mathematics experiences and wrote about their feelings and thoughts about mathematics. We analyzed the students’ narratives and identified three integrated math anxiety experiences: Thriving, Persisting, and Agonizing. These experiences occur at the intersection of students’ thoughts, feelings, and physiological reactions about math across dimensions of positive, neutral, and negative.

Thriving students primarily had positive feelings and thoughts about math and did not report any physiological reactions. A Thriving student said…

“I have low math anxiety. This is because I have always gotten good grades in my math classes in high school, like in science related mathematics. I have never really been worried or nervous about doing math and think that it can even be fun sometimes. I know that I will be able to figure it out. I have never been told I was bad at math and so I have high confidence…”

Agonizing students primarily had negative feelings, thoughts, and physiological reactions related to math. A student identified as Agonizing stated,

“I have always struggled with numbers and still do. I was always placed in ‘special learning’ math groups to try to get me up to the level of my classmates but I still struggle with it. My feelings about math tend to be negative because I have had more negative experiences than positive. Playing simple games with adding or subtracting puts me into a negative mood. I do have physical reactions like sweating and restlessness when doing things involving math.”

Persisting students were different from Agonizing and Thriving students by having positive and negative feelings and thoughts and, if they had physiological reactions, they were negative. Also, Persisting students expressed more neutral thoughts and feelings about math than Agonizing or Thriving students. The following two quotes are examples of Persisting students13:

“I like math when it makes sense. Usually, most questions are not too difficult to learn and/or review and I can catch on quite quickly with the proper examples and explanations. However, if the problems become challenging and do not make sense even with an explanation, I break down. My anxiety will skyrocket and I will shut down.”

“I have never been good at math, but I have always liked it. If I work hard, math tends to be more fun. But when I get stressed and anxious, it can get hard to keep working at it.”

When we explored how these integrated math anxiety experiences differed between female and male students, we saw clear gender differences. Nearly half of the women in the sample (47%) were identified as Agonizing, and only 9% of women were identified as Thriving. Most men were identified as Persisting (48%). The figure below shows the percentage of women and men identified as each integrated experience category. The high number of women with Agonizing math anxiety experiences supports the idea that math attitudes may serve as a barrier for women in geoscience.

Quantitative Evidence of Math as a Barrier for Women in Geoscience

The baseline and post survey data allowed us to explore the relationships between math anxiety, math self-efficacy, geoscience self-efficacy, and geoscience interest (see all measures used here). An analysis of the baseline data revealed that these four affective variables are significantly related to one another. Positive math attitudes (i.e., low math anxiety, high math self-efficacy) were related to positive geoscience attitudes (i.e., high geoscience self-efficacy and high geoscience interest), while negative math attitudes were related to negative geoscience attitudes. When these relationships were examined with just men or just women, math anxiety was related to geoscience efficacy and interest only for women. These relationships suggest that these variables are likely important to one another in some way, particularly for women, and so we explored further.

Because interest is the most important variable in selecting a geoscience major,5 understanding how these other variables influence geoscience interest is important in helping students develop interest in geoscience. We asked, do math anxiety, math self-efficacy, or geoscience self-efficacy predict students’ geoscience interest? And if so, are there differences between men and women in how they predict interest? Our analyses revealed that for all students, their level of geoscience self-efficacy was the strongest predictor of their geoscience interest; students with high geoscience self-efficacy are more likely to have strong interest in geoscience. However, for women but not men, their level of math self-efficacy also predicts their geoscience interest. In other words, for male students to be interested in geoscience, only their geoscience efficacy is relevant. But for female students to be interested in geoscience, their geoscience efficacy AND their math efficacy are relevant.

Increasing Women’s Interest in Geoscience

Clearly, math attitudes are critical to women’s interest and experiences in geoscience more so than men. Interest is an extremely complicated issue and is developed from a variety of prior experiences, personality characteristics, affective variables, and environmental impacts.14 Knowing that women’s geoscience interest is related to their math attitudes is essential to understanding how to develop and enhance women’s interest in geoscience. Recent calls have also implored science disciplines that to decrease burnout and increase participation, science needs to humanize the field which includes considering inclusion, equity, and emotional aspects of the learning environment.15,16 Considering emotional aspects such as math anxiety and math self-efficacy in a marginalized group shows empathy and enhances a culture of care.

Next Steps for Geoscience Instructors

We argue that it is essential for geoscience instructors to develop an understanding of the important role of math anxiety and math self-efficacy for their women students. It may be important to include support for students’ math attitudes in introductory geoscience courses. While women students should not be singled out for this support, they may particularly benefit from its inclusion. While our GSLs are not yet fully studied, we anticipate having evidence of their success in early 2024, and we encourage geoscience instructors to include them in their introductory geoscience courses. In the meantime, we suggest existing resources such as this AAAS-IUSE blog Patching Together a Plan for Student Success17 which describes Universal Design for Learning to consider and incorporate student individual differences in course design and NAGT’s Affective Domain in the Classroom18 Teach the Earth portal which provides information, scholarly resources, and classroom strategies for geoscience educators about motivation and self-efficacy in the classroom specifically for geoscience.


The authors acknowledge the students who participated in our projects, the instructors who implemented our lessons, and collaborators Curtis Hope-Hill, Stephanie Jarvis, and Audrey Tocco for their research support.