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How Attitude Towards Math Impacts Student Achievement

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Did you know?

Students who used Prodigy saw a significant, positive shift in their opinion towards math in just a few months.

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  • Game-Based Learning
  • School Leadership

As an educator, you know how much of your time and resources get dedicated to exploring the following question: 

How can we improve the student learning experience?

One way to tackle this issue --  often overlooked -- is to consider students' attitudes towards math.

Whether positive or negative, attitude towards math often reflects a student’s value, self-confidence, enjoyment, motivation and anxiety levels when it comes to the subject. 

17% of Americans suffer from high levels of math anxiety.

As early as 1st grade, students can start displaying negative attitudes towards math. 

80% of surveyed students enjoyed learning activities more when they used tablets.

Key takeaways

  • The relationship between attitude towards math and learning outcomes is bidirectional. A positive attitude towards math can lead to higher achievement, and high achievement can result in more favorable attitudes.
  • Students’ attitude towards math can affect their overall achievement. Value, self-confidence, enjoyment, motivation and anxiety surrounding math are all reflected in a student’s attitude. Getting involved as early as possible is the best way to prevent long-lasting negative attitudes towards math.
  • Digital game-based learning is a promising option for improving opinions on math. Since kids have so much fun playing video games, incorporating them into learning can increase motivation and engagement — leading to better attitudes towards math and greater achievement.

Affect and its impact on math learning

According to the American Psychological Association, feelings that impact a person’s mood and emotional reaction can be referred to as affect, and attitude towards math is one example of an affective state.

Research considers affect to exist on a sliding scale-- ranging from positive to negative. Naturally, this means in a school full of students, you’ll see a huge range of different affective states related to math learning. 

For every child who looks forward to their next math lesson, there’s another who feels confused and defeated. One student might not like math because they think the subject isn’t useful, while another dislikes it because they doubt their own ability to succeed. 

Many studies link attitude towards math to math learning and ultimately, math achievement. Positive attitude has been associated with higher achievement, while negative attitude appears to relate to poor performance

Where do negative math attitudes come from?

There are many possible contributors to negative attitudes towards math, including: 

  • The idea that math is for “smart people.”
  • The perception of math as a “boring” subject.
  • A general lack of confidence in one’s learning abilities.
  • Being overwhelmed by complex and difficult math problems.
  • An inability to understand the relevance of math in “the real world.”

Math Anxiety 

Math anxiety is an extreme, yet all-too-common, example of what can happen with a negative attitude towards math.

Educational Studies in Mathematics considers Math anxiety to be a feeling of tension and worry that interferes with a student's ability to solve math problems.

Those with math anxiety have extremely negative perceptions about their own ability to succeed in the subject, often thinking:

  • I hate math.
  • I just can’t do math.
  • I’ll never be good at it, so what’s the point in trying? 

These negative feelings are also expressed with physiological symptoms that can diminish a person’s sense of comfort and self-esteem.

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Various studies -- including this one from the journal for Research in Mathematics Education-- associate higher levels of math anxiety with reduced enjoyment and motivation, as well as poor performance. 

Even if a student is capable of solving math problems, anxiety can still impact their enjoyment of math and motivation to learn more. This gets expressed with worse outcomes on math assignments and tests, which can lead to a continuous cycle of math anxiety

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Unfortunately, these negative outcomes are not hard to come by. Around 17% of Americans suffer from high levels of math anxiety, and negative feelings that contribute to math anxiety can be seen in children as early as 1st grade

These findings suggest getting involved as early as possible is the best way to prevent long-lasting negative attitudes about math and extreme states of math anxiety.

So, how do you intervene in the relationship between attitude and achievement? 

Attitude and achievement -- a bidirectional relationship

To improve student attitudes and achievement in math, it’s important to understand the connection between the two. 

At first glance, it might seem like an obvious correlation: if a student has a good attitude towards math, they’ll be more inclined to learn, they’ll try harder and their performance will be better. As Guney Haciomeroglu  from Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University says:

Anxiety and attitude towards mathematics are important predictors of motivation and educational outcomes related to achievement.

This idea can be taken a step further. Research suggests the relationship between attitude and achievement is bidirectional. This means a relationship can develop from two different directions:

  1. A student with a positive attitude towards math:

Is more confident when learning math → enjoys math → is motivated to do more → actively engages during math lessons → gets more practice → achieves more. 

  1. A student with higher achievement in math:

Has more confidence in their abilities → sees the value of math → has a positive attitude towards math. 

One study actually found a stronger effect from achievement to attitude, indicating that actual performance and grade levels can seriously impact a student’s thoughts about math.

This bidirectional relationship can often result in a cycle of attitudes and achievement feeding into one another. To improve attitudes and/or achievement, you need to break this cycle and create one of positivity! 

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The importance of a positive attitude

Short-term achievement in math can be great, but positive attitudes can lead to so much more than a few good test scores. 

Educators should instill positive attitudes in math not just for better performance in the subject, but also to improve overall cognitive abilities and help create lifelong learners! 

When students display a positive attitude towards math, improvements can be seen in:

  • Emotions
  • Motivation
  • Confidence
  • Engagement
  • Working memory
  • Numerical processing

Having a positive attitude acts directly on your memory and learning system. I think that’s really important and interesting.

Lang Chen, PhD Stanford University

Improvements in each of these areas certainly contribute to greater learning abilities and educational outcomes, but they also make for healthier, happier students overall. This is why instilling positive attitudes and promoting a growth mindset as early as possible is so important.

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Image source: Teaching a Latte in First

Game-based learning and attitude towards math

Now that you understand the importance of positive attitudes, how do you actually establish them at your school?

One promising option for promoting a positive attitude towards math is game-based learning, particularly with the use of digital games. It’s no secret that kids love video games. In fact, a study by American Psychologist discovered 97%of American children and adolescents play video games for at least one hour every day. Video games can be a great pastime, but they’re also gaining tons of traction in the educational world -- and the results are looking great! A study from the University of Dundee found 80% of surveyed students enjoyed learning activities more when they used tablets, deeming them more fun and engaging than their usual math class. Since kids have so much fun using digital platforms like video games, incorporating them into learning can lead to increased motivation and engagement. Digital games also offer a number of helpful and positive features, like immediate feedback, which can pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in students to help improve confidence and reduce math anxiety. When teachers assign learning activities students enjoy, they’ll be more likely to engage with content. Eventually, students will start enjoying the subjects they’re learning during these activities and develop an overall positive attitude towards their education!

How Prodigy can help

One game-based learning tool that can provide a positive math experience is Prodigy — the engaging math platform loved by students, teachers and parents around the world. Prodigy provides over 1,500 curriculum-aligned math skills for students to practice. Plus, it turns math into an exciting adventure. The game takes players’ personalized characters through a virtual world of adventure, where competing in “battles” means answering more math questions and practicing important math skills. Students love Prodigy because it’s fun to play, and educators love it because it helps motivate and engage students to improve their abilities in math. Teachers can align Prodigy with in-class lessons, use it as a relevant entry or exit ticket, or differentiate for individual learning needs. 

I’ve seen a huge change in students' attitudes toward math. Before Prodigy, many students reported math as their least favorite subject. After using Prodigy, students are motivated to learn and no longer view math as their least favorite thing to do. Early in the year, a parent thanked me for using Prodigy because her son now chooses to play it over traditional video games! Katie Whitehurst,4th Grade Teacher, Athens School District

Strengthen attitudes and boost student learning

Negative attitudes towards math are far more common than they should be. Things like insecurity, apathy and math anxiety can greatly impact a student’s learning environment and their overall achievement in math. Luckily, instilling a positive attitude early could be the key to improving achievement. Reinforcing positive attitudes can break the cycle -- boosting learning out comes and motivating children to learn, grow and improve. Math often carries a bad reputation, but it doesn’t have to. Negative perceptions about math usually stem from how students learn to view academic subjects early on. When a positive attitude in math is encouraged, students will keep working harder, reaching higher and following their own paths to success. 

[Read the full Literature Review here.]

For engaging math learning, try Prodigy — the curriculum-aligned math platform used by more than 1.5 million teachers and school leaders.

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