How strongly children identify with maths (their maths “self-concept”) can be used to predict how high they will score on a standardized test of maths achievement, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington.
The study, published in the October 2015 issue of the journal Learning and Instruction, is the first to demonstrate a link between students’ subconscious maths self-concepts and their actual maths achievement scores.
The study also measured the strength of students’ stereotype that “maths is for boys” and found that, for girls, the stronger this subconscious stereotype, the weaker the individual child’s maths self-concept.
“Our results show that stereotypes are related to how children think of themselves as maths learners, which, in turn, is related to how well they do on an actual maths test,” said lead author Dario Cvencek, a research scientist at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).
With co-author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS, Cvencek examined maths-gender stereotypes, maths self-concepts and maths scores in 300 children (an even mix of boys and girls) in grades 1, 3, and 5 in Singapore.
The researchers chose Singapore, because it — and other Asian countries including Japan and China — is consistently ranked as one of the top nations in the world for maths achievement among girls and boys.
The researchers focused on a high-achieving culture where there aren’t gender differences in maths ability, so that they could see which psychological factors have a role in student performance.
“We were fascinated to find that elementary-school children have subconscious thoughts about whether or not they are a maths person,” Meltzoff said. “They have an implicit identity of ‘maths is for me’ or ‘maths is not for me’ at a surprisingly early age. This self-concept matters because it is correlated with actual behavior, such as maths achievement.”
At the beginning of the children’s school year, the researchers led each child through an assortment of tasks measuring the students’ beliefs about maths-gender stereotypes (“maths is for boys”) and maths-self concepts (“maths is for me”).
A Child Implicit Association Test (IAT) examined the children’s subconscious beliefs. The IAT probes self-concepts, stereotypes and other attitudes that people may not know they have. Adult versions of IAT reveal hidden beliefs about gender, race, religion and other topics.
The researchers also used self-reported tasks to measure the children’s explicit beliefs. These tasks involved the children looking at a series of drawings of boys and girls and then answering questions such as how much the characters in the drawings liked maths.
Then, at the end of the school year, the students took a standardized maths achievement test administered by their teachers.
Girls and boys performed well on the maths test and had similar scores. But when the researchers factored in maths-gender stereotype and maths self-concept beliefs, they discovered that the children’s implicit — but not explicit — beliefs affected maths scores.
In both genders, students with stronger implicit maths self-concepts did better on the maths test. Stronger implicit maths-gender stereotypes correlated with stronger maths self-concepts for boys, but weaker maths self-concepts for girls.
“We’ve found that there are implicit psychological factors, such as students’ beliefs about maths, that can weaken students’ identification with maths and also impair their maths performance,” Cvencek said.
And since the factors are implicit and not detectable by self-report measures, this means they can affect student performance without students’ being aware of them.
Previously, Cvencek and Meltzoff found that as early as second grade children in the U.S. begin to express the cultural stereotype that “maths is for boys, not for girls,” which may discourage girls from pursuing maths.
The researchers plan to use the findings to design ways to identify implicit maths self-concepts as they emerge early in elementary school and create interventions to change beliefs that could be detrimental to maths performance.
“We have high hopes for the usefulness of our tests,” Cvencek said. “We think it could be useful for teachers and parents to know whether their young child identifies positively or negatively with maths. If we can boost children’s maths self-concepts early in development, this may also help boost their actual maths achievement and interest in the discipline. We plan to test this.”
Manu Kapur from the National Institute of Education in Singapore is another co-author of the study.
The National Science Foundation, the Singaporean Ministry of Education and the UW funded the research.