Nav: Home

Positive attitude toward math predicts math achievement in kids, Stanford study finds

January 24, 2018

For the first time, scientists have identified the brain pathway that links a positive attitude toward math to achievement in the subject.

In a study of elementary school students, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that having a positive attitude about math was connected to better function of the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain, during performance of arithmetic problems.

The findings will be published online Jan. 24 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.

'Attitude is really important'

"Attitude is really important," said Lang Chen, PhD, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ."

The scientists had not expected the contribution of attitude to be so large, Chen said. The mechanism underlying its link to cognitive performance was also unexpected.

"It was really surprising to see that the link works through a very classical learning and memory system in the brain," said the study's senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Researchers had previously hypothesized that the brain's reward centers might drive the link between attitude and achievement -- perhaps children with better attitudes were better at math because they found it more rewarding or motivating. "Instead, we saw that if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain's problem-solving capacities," Menon said.

The researchers administered standard questionnaires to 240 children ages 7 to 10, assessing demographics, IQ, reading ability and working-memory capacity. The children's level of math achievement was measured with tests of their knowledge of arithmetic facts and ability to solve math word problems. Parents or guardians answered surveys about the children's behavioral and emotional characteristics, as well as their anxiety about math and general anxiety. Children also answered a survey that assessed their attitude toward math, including questions about interest in math and self-perceived math ability, as well as their attitude toward academics in general.

Forty-seven children from the group also participated in MRI brain scans while performing arithmetic problems. Tests were conducted outside the MRI scanner to discern which problem-solving strategies they used. An independent group of 28 children also was given MRI scans and other assessments in an attempt to replicate the findings from the cohort previously given brain scans.

Opening the door

Math performance correlated with a positive attitude toward math even after statistically controlling for IQ, working memory, math anxiety, general anxiety and general attitude toward academics, the study found. Children with poor attitudes toward math rarely performed well in the subject, while those with strongly positive attitudes had a range of math achievement.

"A positive attitude opens the door for children to do well but does not guarantee that they will; that depends on other factors as well," Chen said.

From the brain-imaging results, the scientists found that, when a child was solving a math problem, his or her positive-attitude scores correlated with activation in the hippocampus, an important memory and learning center in the brain. Activity in the brain's reward centers, including the amygdala and the ventral striatum, was not linked to a positive attitude toward math. Statistical modeling of the brain imaging results suggested that the hippocampus mediates the link between positive attitude and efficient retrieval of facts from memory, which in turn is associated with better problem solving abilities.

"Having a positive attitude acts directly on your memory and learning system," Chen said. "I think that's really important and interesting."

The study could not disentangle the extent to which a positive attitude came from a child's prior success in math. "We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional," Chen said. "We think it's like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. And it can probably go the other way and be a vicious circle, too."

The findings may provide a new avenue for improving academic performance and learning in children who are struggling, Menon said, cautioning that this idea still needs to be tested through active interventions.

"Typically, we focus on skill learning in individual academic domains, but our new work suggests that looking at children's beliefs about a subject and their self-perceived abilities might provide another inroad to maximizing learning," Menon said. The findings also offer a potential explanation for how a particularly passionate teacher can nurture students' interest and learning capacities for a subject, he added. Inspiring teachers may be instinctively sharing their own interest, as well as instilling students in the belief that they can be good at the subject, building a positive attitude even if the student did not have it before.
-end-
Other Stanford authors of the paper are former research assistant Se Ri Bae; research scientists Shaozheng Qin, PhD, and Tianwen Chen, PhD; and former postdoctoral scholars Christian Battista, PhD, and Tanya Evans, PhD.

Menon is a member of Stanford's Child Health Research Institute, Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (grants HD047520, HD059205 and HD057610).

Stanford's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences also supported the work.

The Stanford University School of Medicine consistently ranks among the nation's top medical schools, integrating research, medical education, patient care and community service. For more news about the school, please visit http://med.stanford.edu/school.html. The medical school is part of Stanford Medicine, which includes Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children's Health. For information about all three, please visit http://med.stanford.edu.

Stanford University Medical Center

Related Memory Articles:

Taking photos of experiences boosts visual memory, impairs auditory memory
A quick glance at any social media platform will tell you that people love taking photos of their experiences -- whether they're lying on the beach, touring a museum, or just waiting in line at the grocery store.
Think you know how to improve your memory? Think again
Research from Katherine Duncan at the University of Toronto suggests we may have to rethink how we improve memory.
Improving memory with magnets
The ability to remember sounds, and manipulate them in our minds, is incredibly important to our daily lives -- without it we would not be able to understand a sentence, or do simple arithmetic.
Who has the better memory -- men or women?
In the battle of the sexes, women have long claimed that they can remember things better and longer than men can.
New study of the memory through optogenetics
A collaboration between Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Harvard University pioneers the increase of memory using optogenetics in mice in Spain.
Peppermint tea can help improve your memory
Peppermint tea can improve long-term and working memory and in healthy adults.
A new glimpse into working memory
MIT study finds bursts of neural activity as the brain holds information in mind, overturns a long-held model.
Memory ensembles
For over forty years, neuro-scientists have been interested in the biological mechanisms underlying the storage of the information that our brain records every day.
What is your memory style?
Why is it that some people have richly detailed recollection of past experiences (episodic memory), while others tend to remember just the facts without details (semantic memory)?
Watching a memory form
Neuroscientists at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science have discovered a novel mechanism for memory formation.

Related Memory Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Bias And Perception
How does bias distort our thinking, our listening, our beliefs... and even our search results? How can we fight it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas about the unconscious biases that shape us. Guests include writer and broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied, climatologist J. Marshall Shepherd, journalist Andreas Ekström, and experimental psychologist Tony Salvador.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#514 Arctic Energy (Rebroadcast)
This week we're looking at how alternative energy works in the arctic. We speak to Louie Azzolini and Linda Todd from the Arctic Energy Alliance, a non-profit helping communities reduce their energy usage and transition to more affordable and sustainable forms of energy. And the lessons they're learning along the way can help those of us further south.