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Teachers and parents have long believed that boys better at math than girls, end of story. It turns out that’s not true once the nature of the game is changed. A new study from Brigham Young University found that with the right circumstances and encouragement, girls are just as good as boys when it comes to math.

Because math scores are usually decided with one-shot competitions, boys have a competitive edge and score better than their similarly talented female classmates. But the researchers from Brigham Young studied 24 elementary schools, giving students math tests in five different formats. At 18 of the schools, the first format was a race. The students were paired with another kid who had similar past math scores and the first of the pair to complete the quiz in five minutes won a raffle ticket or small prize. The boys routinely outperformed the girls by an average margin of one point on the 10-point test. The study authors weren’t sure whether to attribute boys’ initial victories to their excitement over the competition or whether girls were just too shy in the setup.

However, over the next four tests, girls caught up with their classmates. Perhaps most surprisingly, in the remaining six schools without the contest quiz format, girls kept up with boys right from the beginning. Brigham Young University math professor and award-winning educator Jessica Purcell said she’s found the same to hold true even in her own classes. It seems encouragement is the key to girls’ mathematic success. Professor Purcell the next step is to figure out how to get girls to thrive in competitive academic environments. “If you convince [girls] to stick around and give it a shot, they will acclimate and do just fine.”

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