When Kids' Positive Attitude Towards Math Fades (And What To Do About It)


A recent study from Finland explored the development of children’s motivation for mathematics during the early school years, and how that development is associated with their mathematics competence. The researchers followed nearly 300 children for three years. The study showed that children’s interest in, and competence perceptions of, mathematics are generally quite positive as they begin school, but turn less positive during the first three years. Changes in interest and self-concept are also associated with each other. In other words, if a child’s interest fades, so does their competence perception, and vice versa.

“A significant observation was that both school beginners’ higher initial motivation, and less decline in motivation during the follow-up, predicted better competence in the third grade, after accounting for initial differences in competence,” says Professor Markku Niemivirta of the University of Eastern Finland.

Gendered Development Starts to Show

The study showed that children were able to assess their motivation for mathematics rather accurately already when beginning school. In addition, children’s assessments of their interest and competence were already differentiated, despite being closely related. “It is only natural that children are more interested in things they feel good at. And vice versa, they may do better in something they’re interested in,” Niemivirta said.

On average however, school beginners’ positive motivation started to decline during the early school years, and the scale of this decline is associated with later differences in competence. There were no gender differences in school beginners’ motivation and competence, but at the end of the follow-up, girls’ motivation had, on average, declined more than that of boys. Girls’ more negative change in motivation on average reflects an unfortunate gendered development, the traces of which remain visible until much later.

Practices for Maintaining Interest 

Although the negative change observed in the study may partly reflect children’s more realistic self-assessment over time, the researchers suspect that a role is also played by mathematics gradually getting more difficult, and an emphasis being placed on performance.“The observed association between a change in motivation and competence shows, however, the added value of positive interest and self-concept. It would be important to develop and apply teaching practices that support and maintain children’s interest in mathematics and strengthen their experiences of success,” Niemivirta points out.

In the three-year study conducted by the Motivation, Learning and Well-being research collective, MoLeWe, children assessed their interest in, and competence perceptions of, mathematics annually. Mathematics competence was assessed by tests and teacher evaluations. The study was published in British Journal of Educational Psychology.

StepUp Note

Math is an important skill for both life and learning. This research shows how competence (math ability) relates to confidence (fear of failure) in math learning. It recommends the use of math strategies that strengthen the experience of success.  StepUp to Learn presents math in 3 different ways: number names, number sets and math operations. It gives children a valuable opportunity to improve math skills without fear of failure.

Note by Nancy W. Rowe, MS, CCC/A

Reposted from University of Eastern Finland



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