Factors affecting the academic choices of academically talented adolescents
Olszewski-Kubilius, P. & Yasumoto , J.
Talent Development, Volume II, pp. 393-397
Ohio Psychology Press

This article by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Jeff Yasumoto examined what influenced students when choosing courses at a summer academic program. The study found several factors influencing the choices students made, including previous academic experience and race. Parental attitudes had the greatest effect on students choice across all variables.

This study examined the factors that influence the course choices of gifted middle school students who participate in a summer academic program. Specifically, factors that affect the choice between a verbal versus a science course and a verbal versus a mathematics course were studied. The factors included gender, race, ability, previous educational experiences, interests, and parental attitudes. Results showed that there was a gender difference favoring males for selection of math and science courses over verbal ones. Parental attitudes and previous educational experiences influenced the selection of a math class over a verbal course and parental attitudes and race influenced the selection of a science course over a verbal course. The importance that parents place on mathematics and science for the child's future had the most powerful influence over students' selections compared to other variables and appear to offset negative attitudes that might prevent females from selecting math courses.

Gender differences exist in the taking of advanced mathematics and science courses in high school and the pursuit of college degrees and careers in mathematics and science among gifted students (Benbow, 1988; Benbow & Minor, 1986; Benbow & Stanley, 1982; Eccles & Harold, 1992).

Eccles has developed a model to account for individuals' achievement related choices (see Eccles & Harold, 1992; Meece, Parsons, Kaczala, Goff & Futterman, 1982). Factors proposed to influence individuals' choices include self-perceptions, interpretations of gender roles, socializers expectations, and affective memories. Eccles and her colleagues have conducted numerous studies to test the relationships in their model. Very little of this research has been performed with gifted individuals. Yet, Eccles notes that “many of the most significant sex differences among the gifted occur on achievement related behaviors that involve the element of choice." (Eccles & Harold, 1992, p 8). The purpose of this study was to examine the factors that influenced the achievement related choices, specifically course choices, of a group of academically talented middle school students participating in a summer program.

Research on students' course choices in extra-educational programs such as summer programs suggest that females are less likely to choose math or science classes and more likely to choose verbal classes compared to males (Olszewski-Kubilius, Yasumoto, Wohl & Landau, under review; Stocking & Goldstein, 1992; Lubinski, Benbow & Sander, in press). There is little research that directly addresses the bases for students choices of preferences in these situations. Previous research suggests that gifted males and females may differ in their mathematical ability, interest in mathematics and science, previous educational experience with these subjects, and attitudes such as confidence and motivation to study mathematics. Previous research also suggests that parental attitudes and expectations regarding pursuit of math and science may differ for gifted males and females. However, the link between these characteristics and academic decisions and choices has not been generally established empirically. This was the purpose of the present study.

The subjects were 394 student participants in a university summer residential program that used scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test for entrance from 1990 to 1992. Only students who met the criteria to enroll in either mathematics/science or verbal courses were included in this study. Students were primarily either Asian or Caucasian, 13 or 14 years old, and came from high SES homes. There were more males than females (60% versus 40%).

Prior to coming to the summer program, every student received a 12 page questionnaire to complete at home with their parents. The questionnaire asked for basic demographic data, parental attitudes about males' and females' ability and interest in math and science and verbal subjects, students' previous coursework, and participation in extra-curricular and leisure time math and science activities. A separate questionnaire assessed students' attitudes toward mathematics. The core independent/predictor variables of the study were gender (male versus female), race (Asian versus Caucasian), ability (SAT-M and SAT-V scores), students' prior educational experiences (previous coursework in mathematics and science), student interest (participation in math clubs, science competitions, independent learning of mathematics and science, time spent writing for pleasure), and parental attitudes (mothers' and fathers' ratings of the importance of mathematics, science and writing skills to their child's future). The outcome/dependent variables were class choice, math versus verbal, or science versus verbal courses.

The variables were entered into a step-wise regression model in the following order: race and gender, ability, previous educational experience, interests, and parental attitudes.

Findings and Conclusions
In the final regression for the choice between a math or verbal course, two factors were significant, previous educational experience and parental attitudes. Of these, parental attitudes had the most explanatory power, doubling the amount of variance in the math versus verbal course decision that could be accounted for. Students who had taken more math courses prior to attending the summer program were less likely to select a mathematics course. Students whose mothers and fathers rated mathematics as more important to their child's future were more likely to choose to study mathematics during the summer. Ability measures, SAT-M and SAT-V, significantly reduced gender differences when initially entered into the regression but they were no longer significant when parental attitudes were added in the final model. This suggests that when parental attitudes are controlled, ability no longer plays a significant role in students' course decisions. Parental feelings about the importance of subjects may be able to offset student self-perceptions that keep them, particularly females, from accelerating themselves in mathematics. These findings are consistent with that of Meece and colleagues (1982) who suggest that parental expectations and attitudes affect achievement related decisions only indirectly, through a direct effect on students' self perceptions and self-schemata.

The gender difference in the verbal versus science decision was much larger than that for the verbal versus math decision. And, the variables included in our model could not account entirely for the gender difference. In the final regression, only parental attitudes and race were significant. Although all of the variables reduced the gender difference, the largest reductions were a result of the interest variables and parental attitudes. Evidently, academically talented males participate in extra-curricular activities in science more than females which probably increases both their knowledge of science and their confidence in studying it in accelerated courses with other bright students.

As with the math/verbal decision, parental attitudes had the most explanatory power of all our variables. Parents of Asians rated science as more important and writing less important to their child's future than parents of Caucasians. When parental attitudes are controlled, more Asian males choose verbal courses thereby reducing the gender differences in verbal versus science course selections. These results underscore the role of parental attitudes in influencing students' course selections, particularly for Asian students. Our research suggests that variables other than the ones we studied should be explored to account for female's avoidance of science courses in accelerated programs.

In summary, the results of this study suggest that academically talented students' decisions regarding courses to take in extra-educational settings are complex, multiply determined and vary depending upon the choices involved. Interests, ability, previous educational experiences and parental attitudes were all implicated as important contributing factors. One of the most compelling and consistent findings of this study was the influence of parental attitudes about the importance of certain subjects to the child's future. Additionally, the results suggests that extra-educational settings such as summer Programs have some unique characteristics and factors that might not be important in course selections in other settings (i.e. degree of fit with offerings in the local school) are relevant in these situations. Future research should continue to examine the factors that influence students' achievement related choices in these situations.


Benbow, C. P. (1988). Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability in intellectually talented preadolescents: Their nature, effects and possible causes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 11, 169-232.

Benbow, C. P., & Minor, L. L. (1986). Mathematically talented students and achievement in the high school sciences. American Educational Research Journal 23, 425-436.

Benbow, C. P., & Stanley, J. C. (1982). Consequences in high school and college of sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability: A longitudinal perspective. American Education Research Journal. 19 (4), 598-622.

Eccles, J., & Harold, R. (1992). Gender differences in educational and occupational patterns among the gifted. In N. Colangelo, S. G. Assouline, and D. L. Ambroson. Talent Development: Proceedings from the 1991 Henry B. and Jocelyn Wallace National Research Symposium or Talent Development (pp. 2-30). Trillium Press: New York.

Lubinski, D., Benbow, C. P., & Sanders, C. E. (in press). Reconceptualizing gender differences in achievement among the gifted: An outcome of contrasting attributes for personal fulfillment in the world of work. In K. A. Heller, F. J. Monks, and A. H. Passow (Eds.), International handbook for research on giftedness and talent. Pergamon Press: Oxford.

Meece, J. L.., Parsons, J., Kaczala, C. M., Goff, S. B., & Futterman, R. (1982). Sex differences in math achievement: Toward a model of academic choice. Psychological Bulletin, 91 (2), 324-348.

Olszewski-Kubilius, P., Yasumoto, J., & Wohl, V. (in preparation). Gender differences in course selections among academically talented middle school students. Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University.

Stocking, V. V., & Goldstein, D. (1992). Course selection and performance of very high ability students: Is there a gender gap? The Roeper Review, 15 (1), 48-51.

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