A bad (article about a) study on success in math class

Scientific American just published this article (apparently syndicated by a company called LiveScience) which includes some questionable conclusions drawn from a questionable study about math success in school.

The original study seems to be behind a paywall, so I haven’t been able to read it directly. Thus, everything I know about the study came from this article. I am trying to give the study authors the benefit of the doubt that the actual study was a little clearer than this article about the possible conclusions that can be drawn from the study’s results!

This study of 3500 German students seems to show that students who are more motivated to study math and use better “strategies” to study math improve more in math than do other students.

This is an extremely NOT surprising result: students who like learning math and are better at studying math improve more. OK.

What is presented as a more startling result (but still isn’t that startling) is that students’ IQ did NOT predict how much they would improve. On average, regardless of IQ, students scored at the same levels as they did before (if those levels were high to start with, they stayed high; if those levels were low, they stayed low).

This is not a surprise. No one would ever assume that if I told you a student’s IQ, you could predict whether her math scores would increase next year or decrease next year. You may assume that this student’s scores might be higher than her classmates, but you couldn’t know if this student’s scores were higher than her own scores last year. In fact, the article does even mention that at the beginning of the study, students with higher IQs had higher scores, on average.

These two results are combined into the following  (kind of technically correct) statement:

Motivation to work hard and good study techniques, not IQ, lead to better math skills, a new study shows.

…which is true–if by “better” they mean “more improved.”

However, in a quick reading, this statement is  easily confused with “motivation to work hard and good study techniques lead to higher math scores than people who just have high IQs,” which is NOT supported by this study, but which makes a much better headline. The article only mentioned that these students INCREASED their scores by more….for all we know, the scores may still be much lower than those of the students with the higher IQs.

That being said, there IS some good work being done on how things such as hard work, perseverance, etc. can be extremely beneficial academically for students. Paul Tough has a nice summary in his new book.

This is also a helpful reminder to all students that, whatever your current level of math achievement, it is possible to improve, if they (and their teachers) follow the guidance of this study.

That future success is not determined just by ability, but by working harder/better is a mindset that TFA teachers in particular (and others?) are encouraged to try to instill in kids. I think this is probably a good thing. My fear is that studies like this will be used as “evidence” that ONLY motivation/hard work/etc. matter.

A very positive outcome of this study is that there is now evidence that motivation to study math actually improves scores–just drilling students on random, boring procedures is probably less effective than actually getting them interested in what they are studying!

Again, when stated like this, that statement is perfectly obvious, but it is nice to have some data to back that up. My impression is that a too-extreme focus on data has been leading to an increase in the drill-them-on-random-stuff paradigm, so maybe some data showing that actually developing students’ interests in a subject leads to better test results will shift that a bit the other way!

Three minor additional (bonus!) concerns about the Scientific American article:


The title of the piece is “Like math? Thank your motivation, not IQ.” However, the article mentions nothing about how enjoyment of math is linked more closely to motivation than IQ, so the title has nothing to do with the article. The only way this title could actually follow from this study is if people who like math are only those who are successful at it, which actually seems contrary to the spirit of this work.


[…] people who were driven by their own interest improved the most. So rather than keeping Junior’s nose to the grindstone, it may be more helpful for parents or teachers to show him how math ties to real life (for instance, understanding that two $3 candy bars cost $6 rather than just memorizing times tables), [study author, Murayama] said.

It is excellent that he advocates for teaching students to understand math rather than just memorize. However, saying “you have to memorize that 2×3=6 since two $3-candy-bars cost $6” is only just barely superior to telling kids “memorize that 2×3=6.” Being presented with an intriguing question (thanks Dan Meyer!) is usually quite a bit more effective than trying to justify forced memorization.

Also, this was a study of 5th-10th graders. Multiplication may be extrapolating a little too far….


The article twice referred to Tiger Moms, once saying that the study showed they were “half-right” and once saying that Tiger Moms have been “vindicated” by the study. My understanding of Tiger Mom philosophy is that they assume that future success is not predetermined, so working ultra-hard on academics and extra-curriculars will lead to greater future success. Apparently, the “half-right” and “vindication” for Tiger Moms is that success is not predetermined.

However, this article (THANK YOU!) also points out very clearly that simply forcing students to do extreme studying of topics they aren’t interested in is NOT what the study found to be most predictive of improved math scores, rather being MOTIVATED and interested in the topic turned out to be particularly important. The study certainly agrees that success is not predetermined, but draws the OPPOSITE conclusion–that the Tiger Moms are doing exactly the wrong thing by forcing their kids to spend more time studying. Because they share the premise that success is not predetermined, but draw opposite conclusions about how to actually increase success, I think saying the Tiger Moms are “half-right” is a bit of an overstatement.

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