Math attitude influences math achievement

Bad feelings about math beget bad grades — which beget more bad feelings

girls math

Math attitude affects math achievement, a new study finds. Bad feelings beget bad grades, but the opposite is true too.


If the prospect of math homework makes you feel hopeless, it may be bad news for your final grade. On the other hand, a few good grades could foster a positive attitude — which could result in better grades down the line, a new study shows. The findings suggest that fostering a positive, can-do attitude about math can help students master the subject.

Reinhard Pekrun is a psychologist — someone who studies how people behave — at the University of Munich in Germany. He and his colleagues followed 3,425 German students from fifth through ninth grades. At the end of each year, the researchers surveyed the students on math. They asked whether they enjoyed it — or if it angered or worried them. Students also were asked whether they took pride in their math achievements or felt ashamed. The scientists then compared the students’ reported feelings about math to their grades.

And, it turns out, those feelings were linked with their math grades. The reverse also was true: How kids felt about the subject in one year were linked to their math grades the next. Those who had gotten poor grades felt badly about math. And those who had dark emotions performed poorly.

Emotions “have a real impact on students’ performance over time,” Pekrun concludes. But the cycle doesn’t to be negative. While dark feelings, such as fear and anger, may be linked to poor grades, that link between feelings and proficiency works the other way, too. “Achievement has a positive influence on emotions,” Pekrun says. Good feelings about math — taking pride in math achievement and enjoying math class — also led to better grades, and more pride and positivity, too.

These associations between feelings and math grades showed up in both boys and girls. But girls tended to be more susceptible to bad feelings about the subject. “The reason likely is gender stereotypes,” Pekrun says. “There’s a stereotype that girls can’t do math.” That’s not true. Large international studies show that girls do just as well as boys in math. Still, that stereotype might influence girls anyway.

Pekrun and his colleagues published their findings February 8 in the journal Child Development.

“It’s an excellent study,” says Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia. She is a psychologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “It does a lot to tell us how emotions might predict grades over time, [and how] doing well, in turn, predicts the emotions you’re experiencing.” Other studies have looked at test and math anxiety before, she notes. But this is the first time that a study has shown that the feedback between grades and emotions can go on for years.   

Advice for teachers and students

Teaching math isn’t just about numbers and formulas, Pekrun says. How students feel about those numbers — whether they approach them with curiosity or dread — also matters. Teachers can help by teaching concepts clearly, of course. But they also can help by grading students based on how much they improve over time or how much mastery they ultimately show. “Grading on a curve” — or relative to a student’s classmates — can perpetuate a cycle of poor achievements, he argues. Why? This approach will always describe the few best performers as successful and the lowest achievers as failures — even if they had done relatively well.

In addition, it helps if teachers themselves have positive feelings about math, Pekrun says. “If teachers enjoy teaching and really are enthusiastic, this is contagious,” he explains. “If the teacher herself appears bored, then the kids are bored.”  

Students need to do their part too, however. And this may mean more than just doing homework, especially for someone struggling with the subject. “Whether or not you think you’re going to be successful in the future is really important,” Linnenbrink-Garcia explains. “If you did poorly in the past, and you don’t think you’ll do well next time, you’re going to have negative emotions.” But turning those negative emotions around can make the work easier, she says.

Instead of assuming that poor performance will continue, Linnenbrink-Garcia says, students can look at why they aren’t succeeding. Maybe they didn’t study enough. Maybe they didn’t turn in their homework — or do so on time. Maybe they need a new study strategy. Whatever the cause, students can take steps to control how they approach math. “If you can change that thought process, then you may look forward [and] think you’re doing to do better,” she says. And, she adds, “As you experience more success, that’s going to feed back in.” 

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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