Does Intrinsic Motivation Strengthen Math Skills?

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When it comes to education and learning, does motivation promote achievement or does achievement breed motivation? Supporters of self-determination theory believe that intrinsic motivation — that is, being engaged in an activity because of one’s inherent interest and enjoyment in it rather than due to an external reward or contingency — and academic achievement are mutually reinforcing; however, a new study may change the way we understand the role of motivation in learning.

Researchers from Quebec followed a sample of 1,400 students from first through fourth grade and assessed their self-reported intrinsic motivation towards math as well as their math abilities at three time points. The researchers found that over time children’s math skills predicted their feelings of intrinsic motivation towards math but, surprisingly, their intrinsic motivation did not predict their math skills. So, kids who started out good at math were more likely to find it inherently enjoyable and rewarding in the following years but those who started out intrinsically motivated did not necessarily improve their math skills.

These results have important implications for educators, especially those that teach math. Many new teaching approaches focus on increasing student motivation by making academic content more intrinsically enjoyable and interesting for students. For example, some schools use self-directed learning approaches with the goal of enhancing intrinsic motivation. Although these practices may be beneficial and aid student learning, bumping up motivation, specifically in math, may not be enough to promote academic achievement. As the results from this study suggest, students may need to experience success or feel competent in an academic area in order for them to become intrinsically motivated.

The results from this study are also interesting to think about in terms of Carol Dweck’s theory of growth vs. fixed mindset. It is likely very difficult for students to inherently enjoy a school subject if they feel like they are just not good at it. And these feelings of inadequacy can be long-lasting (I know many adults who still describe themselves as being bad at math or have self-diagnosed math anxiety). In order for children to be motivated they may also need to feel as though they are able to learn and develop their math skills regardless of how they are performing on tests. Promoting a growth mindset during the early elementary school years may be the key to enhancing motivation regardless of initial academic ability.

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