Yilong Zheng '11

Hometown: Shen Zhen, China
Senior Study Title:
“A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Gender and Math Performance Among College Students in China and the United States”
Dr. Lori Schmied

Thesis Abstract

Yilong Zheng’s Senior Study topic originated from a debate he had with friends sitting around a table in Maryville College’s Margaret Ware Dining Room.

Some friends were arguing that males are “naturally” better at mathematics. Zheng, who came to the College from southern China, remembered numerous females from his high school who were gifted in math.

As a psychology major, he wasn’t interested in tackling a study that proved which gender performed better on math tests; he was interested in how social factors, specifically self-esteem and stereotypes, might affect performance.

“‘Stereotype’ in psychology is more like a conception or a popular belief about a certain group of people based on some assumptions that could possibly be wrong. This is where bias, prejudices and discriminations are from,” he explained. “Past studies show that math stereotypes – like ‘Males are more successful in the field of science and mathematics’ – create stereotype threats to others, which could possibly be reflected in math performance.”

Zheng’s study became cross-cultural after he traveled home for the summer of 2010 and worked at East China Jiao Tong University. There, he decided to survey Chinese undergraduates on the same topics he had planned to survey American students.

He hypothesized that there is no gender difference among Maryville College and Jiao Tong University students in their math performance. He also tried to see whether gender-related stereotypes about math affected one’s math performance.

Gathering the data was one of Zheng’s first major challenges, he admitted.

“I had to think about what kind of psychometrical questions to ask for my participants – questions that can be easily presented in a quantitative way,” he explained. “I had to determine the potential psychological factors that could affect the result, I had to think about the various ways I could present my data – inferential statistics, linear regression, multi-linear regression or other models – and I had to think about how statistics and linear algebra could be used in the model to explain psychological effects.”

Pulling together similar samples at each higher education institution, Zheng gave them three basic questionnaires, but each in relevant languages (Chinese and English). His math self-esteem questionnaire asked participants to agree or disagree (on a scale of one to four) with statements like “At times, I think I am no good at all in math,” and “I am able to do math as well as most other people.” Using a similar scale on the questionnaire that dealt with gender attitudes and math, participants had to agree or disagree with statements such as “Overall, males are better than females in math.“

To quantify their actual math abilities, Zheng gave American students an abridged version of a practice SAT-Math test. He asked Chinese students to share their scores from the Chinese general entrance examination test. (The Brief SAT-M test was not given to the Chinese sample due to translation issues.)

Impressed by her advisee for many years, Dr. Lori Schmied, professor of psychology, said she was really amazed by the analysis that Zheng tackled after the questionnaires were turned in.

“The study required a more sophisticated statistical analysis than is typical of an undergraduate thesis study,” she said. “It had been a very long time since I had used the particular method and had to refresh. Fortunately, Yilong was able to use the skills and knowledge he had gained from his minor in statistics, as well as consulting with Dr. Jeff Bay on his analysis.”

Zheng performed statistical analyses, including regression and analysis of variance. Results showed that there was not a significant difference between males and females on math performance, but data did suggest significant differences on math-related self-esteem and math-related stereotypes.

“Chinese females and American males both believed that males could and should perform better on math tests in general,” Zheng wrote in his study, following with a logical “Why?”

One possible answer is, simply, culture.

“Chinese students had lower self-esteem in mathematics along with stronger stereotypical thoughts, especially among female Chinese students,” he wrote. “The fact that Chinese students had lower math-related, self-esteem could possibly be explained by the influence of Chinese culture. It is believed that no matter how accomplished a person might be at math, he/she still needs to show politeness and modesty through admitting ‘he/she is still not good enough.’”

Schmied said learning about the cross-cultural differences in psychological concepts such as self-esteem was “fascinating.”

At the conclusion of his study, Zheng determined that, “the effect of stereotype on math performance was … not evident, due perhaps to the limitations of the study. Therefore, the results on effect of stereotype threat failed to support the second hypothesis in the study.”

But proving a hypothesis is not the most valuable part of the Senior Study, Schmied pointed out. It’s the learning process in doing experimental research.

“As with most MC students, Yilong learned that actual research studies rarely look like textbook cases – participants don’t show up for appointments, they misunderstand survey questions,” she explained.

Describing the outcome of the study as “quite interesting,” Schmied said it’s impressive for a variety of reasons, a major one being his collection and analyses of data from two countries.

“The cross-cultural variable makes his findings a valuable addition to the existing literature,” she said.

Zheng isn’t finished with the topic. He said he’ll likely study the social factors involved in math performance in graduate school, where he plans to concentrate on quantitative methods. This is another outcome of the Senior Study process that surprised him.

“I was not able to commit to this kind of quantitative study before undertaking the Senior Study requirement. I was still dreaming about being a counselor back in my sophomore year and did not realize that doing psychological studies using math and statistics would become such a strong interest,” he explained. “I really want to show my huge appreciation to Dr. Bay, who taught me statistics and encouraged me to do applied math for the rest of my life.”

And as for the assistance Dr. Schmied gave him, Zheng said he wasn’t sure he could have finished without her encouragement and support.

“Dr. Schmied really knows my personality and my needs as an international student,” he said.