back. In fact, a descriptive study of
teacher feedback across 58 3rd grade
math classrooms suggests that most
teacher feedback is vague, limited to
summative phrases (such as “very good”
or “try again”) with little or no detail,
either positive or negative (Foote,
1999). Also common is the use of praise
focused on the student’s intelligence
(“You’re so smart to be able to solve that
problem!”) instead of on effort and use
of strategies (“I can tell you’ve been
working hard,” or “You’ve really
mastered conversion of fractions to
decimals”). When feedback centers on
ability, students get the idea that
academic success depends on their
innate intelligence rather than effort and
continuing learning (Dweck, 2006).
Turner and colleagues’ (2002) longitudinal study of 1,197 6th grade
elementary school students examined
the relationship between the learning
environment in math classrooms and
avoidance strategies, such as failing to
seek academic help, which are often
caused by a lack of confidence in the
subject. Researchers found that when
teachers included both genuine praise
for math accomplishments and efforts
and specific feedback on performance,
students were more likely to ask for
assistance and to have better self-efficacy. Conversely, teachers in low-mastery classes typically focused on
getting students to arrive at the correct
answer rather than providing specific
information to build students’ capacity
for problem solving.
Constructive, specific feedback is
valuable for all students, but it has
particular value for girls because of their
tendency to have low self-efficacy in
math and science. Such feedback
enables students to focus on correcting
specific errors and invites them to ask
for assistance when needed, rather than
reinforcing the belief that a wrong
answer is the result of an innate lack of
What You Can Do
If schools are to produce the mathematicians and scientists we need in the 21st
century, teachers must use strategies
that bolster both female and male
students’ feelings of self-efficacy in math
and science. Teachers can create a high-
Foote, C. (1999). Attribution feedback in
the elementary classroom. Journal of
Research in Childhood Education, 13( 2),
Halpern, D., Aronson, J., Reimer, N., Simpkins, S., Star, J., & Wentzel, K. (2007).
Encouraging girls in math and science: IES
practice guide (NCER 2007-2003). Washington, DC: Institute of Educational
Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
When feedback centers on ability, students
get the idea that academic success depends
on intelligence rather than effort.
mastery classroom by providing specific
feedback to help students correct their
mistakes, by genuinely praising efforts,
and by focusing on students’ ability to
improve and learn.
Through formative assessments,
teachers can gather timely feedback on
students’ understandings of the content
being taught and use this information to
provide targeted information about
what the student does and does not
understand. Such teacher guidance is
especially important in building student
self-efficacy, and it may hold the key to
encouraging more girls to pursue
advanced studies in mathematics and
Author’s note: Grace Calisi Corbett,
WestEd Research Associate, assisted in the
preparation of this column.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Is math a gift? Belthat
put females at risk. In S. J. Ceci & W.
Williams (Eds.), Why aren’t more women in
science? Top researchers debate the evidence
(pp. 47–55). Washington, DC: American
Herbert, J., & Stipek, D. (2005). The emergence of gender differences in children’s
perceptions of their academic
competence. Applied Developmental
Psychology, 26, 276–295.
Hyde, J., & Mertz, J. (2009). Gender,
culture, and mathematics performance.
Proceedings of the National Academy of
Simpkins, S., & Davis-Kean, P. (2005). The
intersection between self-concept and
values: Links between beliefs and choices
in high school. New Directions for Child
and Adolescent Development, 110, 31–47.
Turner, J., Midgley, C., Meyer, D., Gheen,
M., Anderman, E., Kang, Y., & Patrick, H.
(2002). The classroom environment and
students’ reports of avoidance strategies in
mathematics: A multimethod study.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 94( 1),
University of Wisconsin–Madison. (2009,
June 2). Culture, not biology, underpins
math gender gap. Science Daily [Online].
Tracy A. Huebner is Senior Research
Associate at WestEd, San Francisco,