Motivation, Not IQ, Matters Most for Learning New Math Skills

Part of our math skills are innate, but a larger part isn't

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You don’t have to be born with math skills; solving problems is a matter of studying and motivation.

That may not seem like such a surprise, but it’s become easy to say ‘I just can’t do math.’ While some element of math achievement may be linked to natural inborn intelligence, when it comes to developing skills during high school, motivation and math study habits are much more important than IQ, according to a new study.

“It’s not how smart we are; it’s how motivated we are and how effectively we study that determines growth in math achievement over time,” says Kou Murayama, a post-doctoral psychology researcher at University of California Los Angeles and lead author of the study published in the journal Child Development.

Murayama and his colleagues studied math achievement among roughly 3,500 public school students living in the German state of Bavariain. The German students were tracked from the fifth grade through the tenth grade and given an annual (grade-appropriate) standardized math exam every year. The kids were also given an IQ test, and asked about their attitudes toward math.

In particular, the psychologists were interested in how much the adolescents believed that math achievement was something within their control, and whether the kids were interested in math for its own sake. They also asked the students about study strategies, such as whether they would try to link concepts together when learning new material, or simply try to memorize the steps to typical problems.

To their surprise, the researches found that IQ does not predict new learning — in other words, intelligence as measured by the IQ test does not indicate how likely students are to pick up new concepts or accumulate new skills. While children with higher IQs did have higher test scores from the beginning of the study, how much new material the kids learned over the years was not related to how smart they were, at least not once demographic factors were taken into account.

“Students with high IQ have high math achievement and students with low IQ have low math achievement,” Murayama says. “But IQ does not predict any growth in math achievement. It determines the starting point.”

So the children who improved in math over the years were disproportionately those who said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with statements such as, “When doing math, the harder I try, the better I perform,” or “I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject”– even if they had not started out as high-achieving students. In contrast, kids who said they were motivated purely by the desire to get good grades saw no greater improvement over the average. As for study strategies, those who said they tried to forge connections between mathematical ideas typically improved faster than kids who employed more cursory rote-learning techniques.

While not entirely surprising — it makes sense that more motivated students would do better and that those who put in more effort to learn would see better results — the findings provide reassuring confirmation that academic success is not governed by a student’s cognitive abilities alone. Instead, students who want to learn math and who work at it may find they make faster gains and learn better than students who are bright but less motivated.

That’s encouraging not just for students, but for schools as well, says Murayama. He notes that it’s not clear how generalizable the results from the German school system are to other nations, but he is intrigued enough by the results to investigate different instructional styles that teachers and parents may use to inspire kids to learn. While certain intelligence traits seem to be based in genetics and and therefore hard to change, previous research suggests that motivation is not innate, but largely learned. Even, it seems, when it comes to math.