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Educational psychology: Finding the fun in maths

February 08, 2017

New work by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich researchers on students' emotional attitudes to mathematics confirms that positive emotions and success at learning in math mutually reinforce each other.

Research has shown that students' learning and cognitive performance can be influenced by emotional reactions to learning, like enjoyment, anxiety, and boredom. Most studies on this topic have been done in labs. Now a new longitudinal study out of Germany investigates how students' emotions in a school context relate to their achievement. The study focused on achievement in math, which is not only important for education and economic productivity but is also known to prompt strong emotional reactions in students. It appears in the journal Child Development.

"We found that emotions influenced students' math achievement over the years," explains Reinhard Pekrun, professor of psychology at LMU Munich and Australian Catholic University, who led the research. "Students with higher intelligence had better grades and test scores, but those who also enjoyed and took pride in math had even better achievement. Students who experienced anger, anxiety, shame, boredom, or hopelessness had lower achievement."

The research was conducted as part of the Project for the Analysis of Learning and Achievement in Mathematics (PALMA). It included annual assessments of emotions and achievement in math in 3,425 German students from grades 5 through 9. Students were representative of the student population of Bavaria, which primarily includes youth from nonimmigrant White families, but represents a broad mix of socioeconomic backgrounds and both urban and rural locations. Students' self-reported emotions were measured by questionnaires, and their achievement was assessed by year-end grades and scores on a math achievement test.

The study also found that achievement affected students' emotions over time: "Successful performance in math increased students' positive emotions and decreased their negative emotions over the years," according to Stephanie Lichtenfeld, senior lecturer at LMU, who coauthored the study. "In contrast, students with poor grades and test scores suffered from a decline in positive emotions and an increase in negative emotions, such as math anxiety and math boredom. Thus, these students become caught in a downward spiral of negative emotion and poor achievement."

The study's finding that emotions influenced achievement held constant even after taking into account the effects of other variables, including students' intelligence and gender, and families' socioeconomic status.

The results are consistent with previous studies showing that emotions and academic achievement are correlated, but they go beyond these by disentangling the directional effects underlying this link. Specifically, the research suggests that emotions influence adolescents' achievement over and above the effects of general cognitive ability and prior accomplishments, the authors note.

The study's authors recommend that educators, administrators, and parents work to strengthen students' positive emotions and minimize negative emotions related to school subjects, for example, by helping students gain a greater sense of control over their performance. They also suggest that providing students with opportunities to experience success may help reduce negative feelings and facilitate emotional well-being, which can promote students' educational attainment.
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Future research on this topic could explore whether the pattern found here pertains to other age groups and academic subjects. The research was supported by LMU and the German Research Foundation.

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

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