I was never a fan of math. I can vividly remember one day in kindergarten when I was handed an extra-long sheet of paper with addition and subtraction problems on them, and I felt like my world was going to end right there. But the world didn’t, and throughout the rest of my school life. I managed to do all right in math. Mostly I would stumble around equations, trying to remember which operation came first, until I came up with some sort of answer. I felt like I was stuck at some hurdle that my brain couldn’t get around, that I would never get math. However, recent research suggests that it may not have been my intelligence that kept math and me at a stalemate, but rather my lack of interest.

Researchers in Germany studied 3,500 Bavarian children from fifth to tenth grade and assessed them on IQ and algebraic knowledge. Researchers also gave students short surveys to answer, having them rate from 1 to 5 how much they agreed with statements such as “I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject.” They were also asked if they relied on memorization when doing math problems, or if they connected the problems to their daily life, so the researchers could see how the students’ motivation would correlate with how they learned.

When first tested, students with higher IQs scored best on the math assessment test. But five years later when tested again, the kids who scored in the top 10% in the motivation and learning strategies exam made the biggest improvements, with scores increasing by 13%. However, kids who had high IQs but scored low in motivation showed no change at all.

The study also showed that, unfortunately, telling your child to hit the books unfortunately won’t help. Children whose parents forced them to study showed no significant improvement either. “It is not a good idea to force students to learn mathematics,” Kou Murayama, the lead author of the study, says. Instead, Murayama suggests showing kids how math relates to everyday life to keep them interested. Instead of just memorizing times tables, he says, having students understand that two $3.00 candy bars cost $6.00 would keep them more engaged. Showing kids math can be fun will make them want to keep learning their whole life!

Further Reading
“To Improve in Math, Motivation—Not IQ—Is Key,” Education News, January 3, 2013.
“Motivation, Not IQ, Matters Most for Learning New Math Skills,” Time Magazine’s Health & Family section, December 26, 2012.
“Like Math? Thank Your Motivation, Not IQ,” LiveScience, December 28, 2012.