STEM Anxiety and the Brain

Do female and male physics students experience different levels of STEM anxiety? How is this related to connections between brain networks? ⎮ 4 min 30 sec read
STEM Anxiety and the Brain

For many university students, introductory courses in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are broadly thought of, and remembered as, being hard, confusing, and intimidating rather than accessible, welcoming, and enjoyable. STEM insecurities can be challenging to overcome and can contribute to stressful classroom experiences, impacting academic performance. Our article, “Sex differences in brain correlates of STEM anxiety” in npj Science of Learning arose from an interest in better understanding how STEM anxiety impacts the learning process. It is well established that clinical anxiety is associated with atypical brain connections. However, in the context of how students learn (and may learn to dislike) STEM coursework, the brain mechanisms are critically understudied.

This educational neuroscience study was performed at Florida International University, which is the fourth largest university in the US and both a Hispanic-Serving and Minority-Serving Institution. FIU is committed to improving STEM education practices in accordance with three pillars of excellence, including (1) evidence-based, (2) learning-centered, and (3) culturally responsive teaching. A central tenant of culturally responsive teaching is to recognize the significance and value of students’ identities to their learning and strive for equitable outcomes. With this in mind, we were interested in understanding how learning and academic success may be achieved by individuals who are under-represented in the STEM disciplines. In particular, we recognized that female students must learn to navigate additional STEM-related barriers compared to their male counterparts, which likely contributes to their heightened levels of STEM-related anxiety. Thus, the foundation for the current study was born.

We recruited and enrolled undergraduate students taking introductory calculus-based physics. Students answered questions about STEM anxiety, including science, math, and spatial anxiety, and completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) session during which we scanned their brains at rest. We focused our analyses on three complementary brain networks: the central executive network that is responsible for reasoning, memory, and attention; the default mode network that is responsible for internal cognition and thinking about one’s self; and the salience network that is responsible for attending to one’s surroundings and switching between the central executive and default mode networks.

We found that female students exhibited higher STEM anxiety than male students and that anxiety increased over the course of the semester among all students. We also observed multiple significant relationships between STEM anxiety and connectivity between the three brain networks in male students, with separate patterns for STEM and clinical anxiety, but notably did not observe similar findings in female students. Additionally, anxiety was negatively correlated with academic performance for both female and male students, but in different ways.

The neuroscience community is currently engaged in ongoing discussions that center around biological sex differences in the brain, specifically whether there exists a “male brain” vs. a “female brain”. Our view is that both sex differences and sex similarities should be examined, and that the answer is more nuanced than a simple sex dichotomy. This is true for the current study, in which we did find sex similarities. But our team chose to highlight observed sex differences when considering student anxiety about STEM education, particularly as it relates to student success, to better understand the differential importance anxiety may have on learning across different student groups. Importantly, evidence indicates that individual differences in our environments and experiences can shape our brain architecture. We know that women tend to experience different, and in many cases additional, challenges in STEM education compared to men and that fewer women enter and are retained in the STEM workforce. As women in STEM, we have collectively experienced or witnessed discriminatory behaviors that influence STEM educational experiences and, in some cases, may extinguish the spark of early career enthusiasm. Many STEM advocates speak of the leaky pipeline and discuss strategies for how it can be patched at various educational and career stages. But others point out inconsistencies with the pipeline metaphor and instead recommend emphasis on addressing toxic institutional climates or structural inequities in STEM training.

Overall, we observed that female and male students experience different levels of STEM anxiety and exhibit different anxiety-related brain connections, which is differentially associated with their academic success. This occurred despite no sex differences in academic performance, providing evidence against persistent stereotypes that male students outperform female students in math and science. The gender gap in STEM remains largely unexplained, yet our results suggest that female students maintain performance compared to their male counterparts while responding differently to the social, emotional, and institutional challenges present in STEM learning communities.

But our current efforts to more fully understand sex differences in STEM anxiety only begins to address the work that is urgently needed. We know that students come to us as the product of their prior experiences and intersecting identities, that there is much more to them than their biological sex. If we are to truly move towards being a more inclusive STEM community, then future work by our group and others should examine to what extent these experiences and associations are shared by individuals with regard to their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, class, and able-bodiedness.

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