Like Math? Thank Your Motivation, Not IQ

girl with math on chalkboard
Despite decades of research, scientists still debate the best ways to predict people's math abilities (Image credit: ollyy |

Looks like Tiger Mom had it half-right: Motivation to work hard and good study techniques, not IQ, lead to better math skills, a new study shows. 

But there's a catch: The findings, published this month in the journal Child Development, show that keeping children's heads in the math books by force probably won't help.

The analysis of more than 3,500 German children found those who started out solidly in the middle of the pack in 5th grade could jump to the 63rd percentile by 8th grade if they were very motivated and used effective learning strategies, said lead author Kou Murayama, a psychology researcher at the University of California Los Angeles.

"The growth in math achievement was predicted by motivation and learning strategies," Murayama told LiveScience. "Given that IQ did not show this kind of effect, we think this is impressive."

Math on the brain

Just how innate math skills are is a controversial question. Some studies show that math skills emerge in babies, while others show that culture plays a huge role in shaping those skills.

For instance, men consistently outperform women on standardized math tests. But those differences may be due to math anxiety, or cultural influences, other studies have shown.

And in opinion surveys, people in Eastern countries often rate effort as most important to math ability, while Westerners typically say math ability is inborn.

Major improvements

To find out which factor was more important, Murayama's team tracked about 3,500 children from Bavaria as they completed an IQ test and an assessment of their algebraic and geometric know-how from 5th grade to 10th grade.

The researchers also gave students surveys that measured intrinsic motivation to work at math by asking them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how much they agreed with statements like, "I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject." They also reported how motivated they were by outside factors like getting good grades.

The survey also asked students how much they relied on rote memorization versus "deep-learning" strategies that had them tie their math knowledge to other areas of their life.

Not surprisingly, at the start of the study, kids with high IQs performed the best at math.

But in a vindication of exacting Tiger Moms everywhere, effective studying techniques and motivation, not IQ, predicted who had most improved their math skills by 10th grade. Kids who started out with average math abilities but were in the top 10 percent in terms of learning strategies and motivation jumped up by about 13 percentage points over the course of the study in their math abilities, Murayama said. Apathetic kids with high IQs showed no such jump.

Inner drive

Unfortunately, forcing kids to hit the books every night won't create mini-math prodigies. External factors such as parental pressure or grades didn't create a lasting boost in math ability.

"It is not a good idea to force students to learn mathematics," Murayama said.

Instead, 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), he said.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.