Motivation and Study, Not IQ, Are Keys to Kids' Math Success

THURSDAY Dec. 20, 2012 -- Do you believe you're not good at math? A new study suggests that with motivation and good teaching strategies, even those who are convinced they'll never be facile with figures can succeed in mathematics.

Innate intelligence -- as defined by IQ tests -- may provide a head start, but it's learning skills and determination that ultimately add up to success, according to the new research.

"The critical determinant of growth in achievement is not how smart you are, but how motivated you are and how you study," said lead study author Kou Murayama, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Intrinsic motivation promotes long-term growth in math achievement."

Math can throw some students off since it is based on symbols and rules that can be hard to conceptualize, Murayama said. "Learning strategies are different in math than they are in other subjects," he said. "Math is a totally different language from what students experience in daily life."

The research, published Dec. 20 in the journal Child Development, is based on six years of data from a long-term German study that assessed math ability in about 3,500 students in grades five to 10. At each grade level, students took a math achievement test near the end of the school year.

Student intelligence and self-reported motivation and learning strategies also were assessed.

The study authors looked at whether student motivation, study skills and intelligence could predict improvement in the mathematical success over time. Intelligence was only correlated with math achievement in the early years. Over time, what mattered most was motivation and study skills.

"Student ability in math involves factors that education can nurture," Murayama said. "Finding ways to motivate students and teaching them study skills may be a critical way to help them progress in math and other subjects."

For many students, the culture in which they're learning makes a big difference, said Paul Goldenberg, distinguished scholar at the Education Development Center, in Waltham, Mass.

"In Romania, the curriculum is pretty dull and there are stereotyped teaching methods, but the kids are committed to learning math because they perceive it as a really useful way to get a good job or be able to leave the country," Goldenberg said. "The whole culture believes it's possible. But in the U.S. we believe not everyone has a mathematical mind."

Goldenberg said it's important to develop a sense of ability in a child early on, especially when it comes to mathematics. "By the time you're in high school, the math ideas are built on earlier concepts and become really complex," he said. "Once you get to 'x + 3 = y,' all of a sudden the notations stand for a whole bunch of numbers."

What's the best way to motivate a child? "Try to help students make connections between what they're learning and what they'll need in the future," Murayama suggested.

More information

Go to Federal Resources for Educational Excellence for material on learning mathematics.

Posted: December 2012


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