December 26, 2012

Attention Congress: Tips for Improving Math Skills

Math is not all about smarts. Motivation and going beyond rote memorization are more important.

As they debate ways to confront the nation's deficit and so-called fiscal cliff, members of Congress may want to pay attention to the findings of a recent study on the qualities needed to improve achievement in mathematics.

Many people have some degree of anxiety when it comes to math, but there is good news for those who don’t think of themselves as gifted in the subject. German researchers have found that achievement in math may have less to do with your intelligence than your study skills and motivation to do well. So rather than being hard on yourself (or your kids) for not being great at math, you may want to consider other factors that may be holding you back.

Achievement in math may have less to do with your intelligence than your study skills and motivation to do well.

The study followed students over a period of six years, from 5th grade through 10th grade, looking at their math achievement as measured by standardized tests and their intelligence over the years. Researchers also asked students to respond to statements indicating how they felt about math: how in-control they felt (with statements like, “when doing math, the harder I try, the better I perform”); their intrinsic motivation (“I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject”); and their external motivation (“In math I work hard, because I want to get good grades”). The investigators also measured whether the students used rote memory to learn how to do problems or if they tended toward a deeper, more conceptual understanding of the material, for example, making connections between different mathematical operations.

Intelligence was only linked to math achievement in student’s initial math competency. When it came to development of math skills over time, factors related to attitude and personal motivation mattered more. Specifically, the team found that internal motivation, feeling in control of one’s own progress, and thinking more deeply about the concepts and making connections to other areas of math were strongly linked to growth in the subject. In contrast, using rote memorization had an inverse relationship to math development.

The study results should bring a degree of optimism to parents whose kids are struggling in math, since they suggest that it’s not about how “math smart” the kids are, but may have more to do with their study skills, motivation, and whether they feel like they are in control of their own learning. “Our study suggests that students' competencies to learn in math involve factors that can be nurtured by education, ” said study author Kou Murayama in a news release. “Educational programs focusing on students' motivation and study skills could be an important way to advance their competency in math as well as in other subjects. ”

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Munich, and published in the journal Child Development.

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