A Stanford study has found that a positive attitude towards math boosts the brain’s memory center and predicts math performance, independent of the child’s IQ. (Erin Digitale, Stanford School of Medicine) (See source here)
You can find the full study in Psychological Science.
“Educators have long observed higher math scores in children who show more interest in math and perceive themselves as being better at it. But it has not been clear if this attitude simply reflects other capacities, such as higher intelligence.
The new study found that, even once IQ and other confounding factors were accounted for, a positive attitude toward math still predicted which students had stronger math performance.” (Erin Digitale, Stanford School of Medicine) (See source here)
Although this study was done for students ages 7-10, earlier in their educational journey. We can take the findings and help our teens who are in highschool or transitioning to highschool.
So how can we inspire our teens to have a positive attitude towards math?
1. Overcoming Math Anxiety
What is it?
Math anxiety is when a student has negative feelings, tension, and a fear of situations that involve math. More than just lack of interest towards math or just thinking math is difficult, it’s really a intense negative emotional response towards situations math related. (Whether that be doing math homework, learning a new formula, or just figuring out how much $7 can get you at lunch) (Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest, Improving Attitude & Beliefs About Mathematics) (See source here)
“Math anxiety is associated with worse math achievement (Ma & Xu, 2004), even in young children (Cargnelutti, Tomasetto, & Passolunghi, 2017). This link is partly explained by the fact that math anxiety eats up working memory (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001), which is what allows an individual to hold multiple concepts in mind at once and is thus critical to solving math problems. And because students with math anxiety avoid situations involving math, they learn less math—which effectively shuts down many (often lucrative) career paths (Ashcraft, 2002).” (Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest, Improving Attitude & Beliefs About Mathematics) (See source here)
How to overcome it?
Encourage understanding of math & not memorization. Many times, anxiety in students comes from feeling like they should know how to solve a problem because when they tried an example with the teacher, they were able to get the answer.
However, because math is about problem solving & not necessarily memorization, it can be frustrating when you see a similar problem you’ve solved before & not know how to do it.
Options to help understanding:
- Reading math books
- Practicing math without a time constraint (many times time-pressure can lead a student to being anxious if they feel they are going too slow & feel bad about themselves). There will be times in school where students have to practice math under time limits (i.e for tests, pop quizzes) but having the time outside of school to practice at your own pace is important to helping a student feel comfortable with math
- Practice math through games – when students are enjoying their time with math through a game, it is a good way to reinforce that mistakes are part of the process of learning & to not take it too hard on yourself for making mistakes
- Getting a personal tutor – this is a go to option for parents when their teen’s don’t do well in math. It’s important to note that when you look for a tutor, the connection between the tutor & student is highly important in your teen’s outlook on math. Your teen needs to look forward to their meetings with the tutor and be able to feel comfortable making mistakes in their learning & asking questions when they don’t understand to build their confidence with math. The right tutor can change your teen’s outlook on math. LearnX is a tutoring program that connects students to a tutor based on their learning style, personality, & interests to ensure that there is a strong foundation the student & tutor can build off of while helping the student improve their math skills & grow a positive attitude for math. Click here to see more about LearnX.
2. Developing a Growth Mindset & Self Efficacy
What is it?
A growth mindset is having the belief that you can improve your abilities through time & effort. It is understanding that your innate ability does not define you & that you can become better.
It’s important for students to have a growth mindset towards math for them to build a positive attitude for it. It is inevitable for students to make mistakes while they learn math. Having a strong growth mindset will enable them to keep pushing forward courageously & knowing with every mistake they made, they are one step closer to mastering their math.
Self efficacy is one’s belief that they can succeed in a particular situation. It is different than self-esteem in the sense that self efficacy is for specific areas.
“Research underscores the importance of self-efficacy in promoting interest and persistence, increased engagement and adaptive responses to challenges, and better academic performance (Pajares, 1996). Students also tend to seek situations in which they feel confident in their abilities and avoid those in which they do not (Bandura, 1986). Thus, students with higher math self-efficacy are likely to participate more, try harder, and persist longer in math classes, even when they encounter setbacks and challenges.” (Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest, Improving Attitude & Beliefs About Mathematics) (See source here)
How to develop a growth mindset?
In developing a growth mindset, your teen first must understand what it is. It involves a part in the brain called neuroplasticity. Simply put, as we process the same type of information repeatedly, it starts to get easier to understand.
Case & point, when you explain this to your teen, ask them “Think back to one of those times in math class where you’re learning a new topic & your first reaction was “there is no way I’m going to learn this, this is too hard”. Do you recall practicing that math topic for about 4-6 weeks, taking a pop quiz & thinking to yourself “wow this isn’t as bad as I first thought”?”
By understanding the science behind it, we can effectively trust the process that our time & effort will result into learning, understanding, and improving. Self talk is an important part of developing the growth mindset.
Have your teen actively be aware of and work on their self talk. The next time they say to themselves
“I’m not good enough.”
“I’m not good at math.”
stop themselves right there & change those statements to
“I’m not good enough yet.”
“I’m not good at this math topic yet.”
The power of the word “yet” makes all things possible in due time.
How to develop self efficacy?
One of the more important influencers on self-efficacy is a student’s past successes. It helps tremendously when a student has been successful at math to be able to continue to believe they will & can be successful.
A great way to help the student with self-efficacy is to help them feel successful. We can do this by setting goals, and breaking down the large goals into smaller more achievable milestones. The student will be able to see their progress & start to believe in their ability & shift their attitude towards math positively.
3. Math Anxiety Self Test
Wonder if your teen has math anxiety? There is a self test below that may give you an idea of where your teen currently stands in regards to math anxiety. (it is not a definitive test, but can give you a good idea). This test is from Ellen Freedman’s math anxiety questionnaire.
(1) = Disagree, (5) = Agree.
- I cringe when I have to go to math class. 1 2 3 4 5
- I am uneasy about going to the board in a math class. 1 2 3 4 5
- I am afraid to ask questions in math class. 1 2 3 4 5
- I am always worried about being called on in math class. 1 2 3 4 5
- I understand math now, but I worry that it’s going to get really difficult soon. 1 2 3 4 5
- I tend to zone out in math class. 1 2 3 4 5
- I fear math tests more than any other kind. 1 2 3 4 5
- I don’t know how to study for math tests. 1 2 3 4 5
- It’s clear to me in math class,but when I go home it’s like I was never there. 1 2 3 4 5
- I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up with the rest of the class. 1 2 3 4 5
40-50 Sure thing, you have math anxiety.
30-39 No doubt! You’re still fearful about math.
20-29 On the fence!.
10-19 Wow! Loose as a goose!
Learn more about LearnX here.
Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181–185.
Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(2), 224–237.
Bandura, A. (1986). The explanatory and predictive scope of self-efficacy theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 4(3), 359–373.
Cargnelutti, E., Tomasetto, C., & Passolunghi, M. C. (2017). How is anxiety related to math performance in young students? A longitudinal study of Grade 2 to Grade 3 children. Cognition and Emotion, 31(4), 755–764.
Digitale, E. (2018, January 24). Positive attitude toward math predicts math achievement in kids. Stanford Medicine. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2018/01/positive-attitude-toward-math-predicts-math-achievement-in-kids.html.
Ma, X., & Xu, J. (2004). The causal ordering of mathematics anxiety and mathematics achievement: A longitudinal panel analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 27(2), 165–179. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ730091
Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings. Review of Educational Research, 66(4), 543–578. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ542078
Regional Educational Laboratory. (2017, December). Improving Students’ Attitudes and Beliefs About Mathematics. https://ies.ed.gov/.
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