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Why many students with A’s in math don’t major in it

Two psychological factors may matter more than grades in motivating potential math scholars, survey analysis shows

Photo of Jill Barshay

Proof Points

Want your kids to become math nerds? Give them recognition and help spark their interest in the subject.

It might sound like common sense. Yet there’s a difference between feeling that others notice you for your math abilities, and feeling confident about your math skills. Many educators and academic experts have focused on the notion of “math confidence,” assuming that students who go on to major in math (or math-heavy subjects like science or engineering) in college are the ones who did well in it in school, and feel that they’re good at the subject. But a new survey of more than 9,000 college calculus students found that it’s not enough to have the self-confidence that you are good at math. For most of these students, public recognition for their math abilities and interest played a bigger role in becoming a “math person.”

“It is surprising that a student who becomes confident in their math abilities will not necessarily develop a math identity,” said Zahra Hazari, one of the study’s researchers at the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Transformation Institute of Florida International University.  “I think the story is you have to develop competence. But if you feel like you can do it, that’s not enough. You need to become interested in math or recognized for your math ability to continue on.”

“I think we see this with a lot of students,” Hazari added. “They get A’s in all their classes, but they don’t see themselves as math people. There are so many women who suffer from this. Recognition is even more important for women. If they feel that they have the abilities, and they’re never recognized, then they’re even less likely to become math people.”

And without this math identity, researchers theorize, it’s very unlikely that a student will choose to study quantitative subjects in college, persist through a difficult academic major and eventually pursue a math or science career.

The study, “Establishing an Explanatory Model for Mathematics Identity,” was published online in April, 2015, in the academic journal Child Development, and was co-authored with Jennifer Cribbs of Western Kentucky University and Gerhard Sonnert and Philip M. Sadler, both at Harvard University. The goal of the research is to understand what motivates a student to pursue a career in a math or science field, and encourage more students to head down these paths.

To understand more about the psychological factors, the researchers surveyed more than 9,000 students  from more than 130 colleges — including two-year community colleges — who happened to be taking a calculus course in the fall of 2009. Some of the students planned to major in math or science fields. Some didn’t. The researchers then used a variety of statistical techniques to see how survey answers correlated with whether the student self-identified as a “math person.” They found that the two factors that most strongly influenced math identity were recognition and finding math to be interesting. Feeling confident in one’s math abilities was only indirectly important, meaning those who felt more competent were more likely to feel recognized and to feel that math is interesting.

Psychological factors are difficult to measure. In the survey, students were asked if they thought their parents, friends, relatives and math teachers saw them as a “mathematics person.” Those who responded “yes” were classified as feeling recognized.

Hazari is already working on a paper to see what teachers can do to make students feel more recognized for their math abilities. One tip, she suggests, is when a student asks for help, steer that struggling student to a classmate who has already figured it out. “That’s really formative [for the student giving the help],” Hazari said. “Students remember those occasions.”

But she cautioned against always having the strong students tutor the weak. To give weaker students recognition, she suggests teaching them a new topic first and then having them present it to the rest of the class. Or asking weaker students to help students in a younger grade. (See summer tips for parents in the sidebar).

Hazari also cautions against confusing recognition with praise. “It’s not about praise. That’s not what we’re talking about,” said Hazari, unless a student solves a genuinely challenging problem.  Instead, she advises trying to find opportunities where a student can play the role of a math expert. “You’re playing this game of trying to empower people in your classroom,” she said. “There’s lots of ways to facilitate it; you have to become more conscious that you’re going to do it.”

How to spark interest in math is more elusive. Hazari suggests making connections between math and things that a child is genuinely interested in. Perhaps the new Common Core standards can help on this front too. Ideally, teachers are supposed to introduce more complicated, challenging problems instead of boring repetitions of basic calculations.

This article also appeared here

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a contributing editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive

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