Ask people to raise their hand if they like math and you most likely won’t see a lot of hands in the air. When asked why math isn’t particularly popular, many will answer that they just never have been very good at it. A new study suggests that for kids who are not mathematically inclined, studying harder and being strongly motivated to improve can be the key to making better grades.
While genetics may play a role in math comprehension, motivation and study habits can play a more important role during the all important high school years according to the study. “It’s not how smart we are; it’s how motivated we are and how effectively we study that determines growth in math achievement over time,” says Kou Murayama, a post-doctoral psychology researcher at University of California Los Angeles and lead author of the study published in the journal Child Development.
Murayama and his colleagues studied math achievement among roughly 3,500 public school students living in the German state of Bavariain. Students were followed from 5th grade through 10th grade and were given annual standard math tests in each grade. They were also given IQ tests and questioned about their attitude towards mathematics.
Researchers wanted to know if the kids believed that better math skills were achievable through hard work and if they were interested in math for its own sake. They also wanted to know if their approach to math included incorporating mathematical concepts into their every day life, or if they relied more on memorization to pass tests.
The psychologists said they were surprised that a higher IQ did not predict “new” learning ability. Intelligence measured by the IQ test did not indicate how likely students were to understand new concepts or to add new skills. Children with high IQs did have higher test scores but how much new material the kids learned throughout the years the study was conducted, was not related to how high their IQ registered.
“Students with high IQ have high math achievement and students with low IQ have low math achievement,” Murayama says. “But IQ does not predict any growth in math achievement. It determines the starting point.
The greatest number of children who showed improvement in math skills during the study were the ones who agreed or strongly agreed with statements such as, “When doing math, the harder I try, the better I perform,” or “I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject.” These included students who were not high achievers when they started. And at the other end of the spectrum, kids who were motivated purely by the desire to get good grades saw no greater improvement over the average.
Kids who said they tried incorporating connections between mathematical ideas typically improved faster than those who used memorization techniques.
While not entirely surprising — it makes sense that more motivated students would do better and that those who put in more effort to learn would see better results — the findings provide reassuring confirmation that academic success is not governed by a student’s cognitive abilities alone. Instead, students who want to learn math and who work at it may find they make faster gains and learn better than students who are bright but less motivated. That’s encouraging not just for students, but for schools as well, says Murayama.
How well the German school results apply to other nations is not known. Murayama is intrigued enough to investigate different instructional styles that teachers and parents may use to inspire kids to learn. While certain intelligence traits seem to be based in genetics and therefore hard to change, previous research suggests that motivation is not innate, but largely learned. Even, it seems, when it comes to math.