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Positive attitude toward math tied to kids’ math achievement, Stanford study finds

The team showed that a better attitude toward math was linked to better function of an important brain memory center while the kids did math problems.

Early in elementary school, I didn't like math. Memorizing arithmetic facts felt like an awful chore, and it took a long time -- years -- for me to see math as interesting and useful.

That dislike may have been a bigger stumbling block than I realized. According to new Stanford research published today in Psychological Science, math attitude and math performance are linked in an unexpectedly direct way in the brain.

Using MRI brain scans in elementary school students, the team showed that a better attitude toward math was linked to better function of the hippocampus -- an important memory center in the brain -- while the children did arithmetic problems.

Our press release explains:

"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 discovery raises important questions for how to help kids who are struggling with math. Perhaps we need to focus not just on skill drills but also on nudging children's attitudes in the right direction, the researchers said. In fact, they think good teachers may already do this without realizing it:

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.

For me, although math never became my favorite subject, I did have a beloved high school chemistry teacher who did a great job of conveying that her subject area was fun, useful and important. And it turns out you need to be good at math to understand a lot of concepts in chemistry, so my math attitude probably got an indirect boost from her.

Photo by Steve Fisch

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