Learning math makes you smarter

Study reveals the secret of good math grades

What is the secret of good math grades? Talent and diligence? A long-term study with 3500 Bavarian schoolchildren shows that intelligence only plays a role at a young age. Ultimately, it's all about motivation.

The riddles of mathematics

The math is full of puzzles. There are tasks that entire generations of mathematicians are desperate for. Of the seven so-called Millennium Problems, formulated in 2000 by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge (USA), only one has been solved. In 2002 the Russian Grigory Perelman succeeded in proving the legendary Poincaré conjecture.

The question of why one person loves numbers and triangles and the other does not understand math is still unanswered. At least there are some indications: the cultural environment is important. What is the status of mathematics? Are girls encouraged to study or do their own mothers persuade them that numbers are not for them?

"It doesn't matter how smart someone is"

A long-term study by the University of Munich (LMU) has now provided surprising findings. Kou Murayama and his colleagues have followed the development of 3,500 Bavarian students over six years. And it showed that those children who were particularly highly motivated achieved the greatest increase in performance. The intelligence of the students, however, played no role.

"It doesn't depend on how smart someone is, but on motivation and how they learn," write Murayama and his colleagues in the specialist journal "Child Development" (Pdf). Only at a young age is there a connection between mathematical skills and intelligence. However, the learning progress achieved over the years is positively influenced solely by the child's inner motivation and his or her learning strategy. That intelligence does not affect success is "impressive," said Murayama.

Memorization hurts: When are students particularly good at math?

The study uses data from the project to analyze performance development in mathematics - Palma for short. A total of 3530 students from secondary schools, secondary schools and grammar schools in Bavaria took part. Your math skills were tested from fifth through tenth grade. There were also intelligence tests at the end of the fifth and at the end of the seventh grade.

In order to get a picture of the motivation, the psychologists presented the children with various statements for evaluation. For example, the harder I try at math, the better I'll do. I do a lot of math because I enjoy it. And: I make an effort at maths because I want good grades.

The learning strategies were also asked: Do the children try to make connections between different areas of math on their own? For example, can a math problem be solved geometrically? Do the children just memorize the solution steps for some math problems?

The results were clear: students then improved particularly strongly in math

  • if they believed that exertion pays off,
  • if they enjoyed the subject (intrinsic motivation) and
  • if they used skillful learning strategies.

It is also astonishing that the frequent memorization of solutions by heart does not help the development of the children, it actually harms them. A typical example of such schematic learning techniques are the so-called captain's tasks, in which children add 26 sheep and ten goats to the age of 36 without thinking.

The impact of pressure from grades or parents

The so-called extrinsic motivation, for example learning to get good grades, has a short-term effect at most, according to the researchers. A high intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, based on fun and interest, leads to better results in the long term.

Murayama thinks little of the drill of a so-called tiger mom, as propagated by the Chinese-American professors Amy Chua. Coercion doesn't make math geniuses out of children, he told Livescience.com. External pressure from parents does not have a lasting effect. "Forcing kids to study math is not a good idea."

After all, psychologists can now predict a student's mathematical success. But why mathematics fascinates some children and not others - the study cannot answer this question.

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