Math and Me: Children Who Identify with Math Get Higher Scores

        How strongly children identify with math (their math “self-concept”) can be used to predict how high they will score on a standardized test of math achievement, according to a new I-LABS study.

The study, published in the October 2015 issue of the journal Learning and Instruction, is the first to demonstrate a link between students’ subconscious math self-concepts and their actual math achievement scores.

The study also measured the strength of students’ stereotype that “math is for boys” and found that, for girls, the stronger this subconscious stereotype, the weaker the individual child’s math self-concept.

“Our results show that stereotypes are related to how children think of themselves as math learners, which, in turn, is related to how well they do on an actual math test,” said lead author Dario Cvencek, a research scientist at I-LABS.

With co-author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS, Cvencek examined math-gender stereotypes, math self-concepts and math scores in 300 children (an even mix of boys and girls) in grades 1, 3, and 5 in Singapore.

The researchers chose Singapore, because it — and other Asian countries including Japan and China — is consistently ranked as one of the top nations in the world for math achievement among girls and boys.

The researchers focused on a high-achieving culture where there aren’t gender differences in math ability, so that they could see which psychological factors have a role in student performance.

“We were fascinated to find that elementary-school children have subconscious thoughts about whether or not they are a math person,” Meltzoff said. “They have an implicit identity of ‘math is for me’ or ‘math is not for me’ at a surprisingly early age. This self-concept matters because it is correlated with actual behavior, such as math achievement.”

Previously, Cvencek and Meltzoff found that as early as second grade children in the U.S. begin to express the cultural stereotype that “math is for boys, not for girls,” which may discourage girls from pursuing math.

The researchers plan to use the findings to design ways to identify implicit math self-concepts as they emerge early in elementary school and create interventions to change beliefs that could be detrimental to math performance.

Read the university news release »
Read the research paper »

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