Girls Would Do Better in Maths and Science Tests If Exams Were Made Longer, Study Finds

Girls would score better in maths and science tests if exams were made longer. That's according to researchers who say this could help to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based (STEM) industries.

Researchers wanted to explore why past studies found that females tend to perform worse than males on maths and science tests, but better on verbal and reading assessments. Some have claimed this disparity arises because females are less able to cope under time pressure.

But the authors of the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, counter this claim. They found females are better at sustaining their performance over a long period when compared to males, and argue this should be regarded as a skill rather than a hindrance.

Increasing the length of tests could help to reduce the gender gap in test scores, as girls could put the extra time to good use as they can sustain their performance, the authors argued.

They point out that in other parts of life it is accepted that challenging mental tasks require time, for instance up to eight hours in the working day.

Researchers looked at data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2015, across 74 countries. Every three years, a different set of 15-year-olds takes the standardized test of reading, maths and science skills. They also assessed a data set on the performance of males and females on 441 maths tests.

The team looked at factors including the probability of questions being answered correctly at what time in the test.

Females were found to do better than males on verbal reading, but males did better on maths and science tests. But after two hours of tests, the gender gap was "completely offset or even reversed," the authors wrote.

As the study was observational, the team couldn't provide definitive explanations for their findings. However, existing research has found females tend to be more self-disciplined and less-over confident and show more developed attitudes towards learning. Girls and boys might also take different approaches while completing a test.

Study co-author Matthijs Oosterveen, researcher at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, told Newsweek: "The study documents a female strength in test-taking that has largely been ignored and that deserves visibility and recognition. Gender differences in test performance in math and science have generally been perceived as a female weakness. The findings in this study could serve as a counterbalance to the gender stereotypes shaped by this perception."

"Moreover, these stereotypes may be unintentionally reinforced by the negative framing of compensation policies," he said. He pointed to negative reports of the decision by the University of Oxford to extend exam times for the benefit of female students.

Gender-balanced test scores might help governments achieve their targets in promoting gender equality in the study and pursuit of STEM subjects as careers, Oosterveen continued. Students might be put off from enrolling in subjects because of test scores unrelated to their ability, he suggested.

But changes must be made to ensure the tests are still valid, which requires more research.

"The research is yet another indication that cognitive tests do not only measure cognitive skills (i.e., how smart someone is), but that they also measure noncognitive skills (e.g., perseverance and test motivation)," he said.

Olga Shurchkov, an associate professor of Economics at Wellesley College who was not involved in the research, told Newsweek: "This study is important because it provides cross-country evidence that suggests these gender gaps can be reduced if women are given the opportunity to persist in a given task."

Shurchkov, who published a 2012 study on how men and women perform differently under pressure, said: "In my work, I find that, given more time, women tend to be more careful and make fewer mistakes. They also are less likely to quit the task early. This is all consistent with what the authors of the present study hypothesized."

She continued: "As I write in my own work, simple interventions, such as untimed exams or longer exams, especially in hard sciences and math, may close the performance gap between men and women and in the long-run increase female participation in the study of these subjects.

"In the workforce, this could translate into more flexible work hours and assessments based on a larger set of performance outcomes rather than, let's say, the most recent project," she said.

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A stock image of a pupil asking a question in class. Females are better at sustaining their performance during tests in reading, maths and science than males, scientists believe. Getty