Does Intrinsic Motivation Strengthen Math Skills?


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.

Why Emotions Matter in Early Education

Boy and Rain

Many people agree that emotional intelligence is a critical part of child development. But what makes children emotionally intelligent and how does a child’s understanding of emotions affect their academic performance in schools?

Recently, researchers from Penn State set out to answer these questions with a sample of 164 children from low-income families. All of the children were assessed on their ability to understand and label different emotional states as well as their literacy and numeracy skills at three time points across preschool and kindergarten. Teachers reported on their relationship with each child in their class as well as each child’s relationship with their peers. The researchers found that children’s emotion knowledge mediated the relation between interpersonal relationships and academic achievement. In other words, children who had positive relationships with their teachers and peers were more likely to recognize and understand emotions, which in turn led to improved academic skills. These associations were significant while accounting for children’s baseline achievement scores and cognitive abilities.

These results are critical because they support important theories on children’s social-emotional development. First, it has been proposed that children learn about emotions through close interpersonal relationships that they have with their parents, siblings, teachers, and peers. Positive interpersonal experiences allow children to make sense of how they, as well as others, are feeling. The more warm and supportive relationships that a child has, the more opportunities they have to learn about different emotional states.

Second, emotion utilization theory suggests that children’s ability to understand emotions makes it easier for them to turn emotional arousal into constructive thought and action. For example, if a child is feeling frustrated by their school work but they are aware of this feeling, and can label it as frustration, they can then seek out help from their teacher or a peer instead of becoming upset and disengaging from their work.

Overall, findings from the Penn State study highlight the importance of positive teacher-student and peer relationships during the early school years as well as the impact that emotion knowledge can have on children’s learning and development. It also has implications for the integration of social-emotional learning in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. There are several school-based programs, such as PATHS and RULER, that have been found to strengthen young children’s emotion knowledge. Given all of this research, its definitely time for emotional literacy to become a built-in part of early education.

What Are the Differences Between High- and Low-Achieving Schools?

Notepad Pencil and Calculator

A recently published study out of Florida State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has identified some key differences between high-achieving and low-achieving high schools. The researchers did a year-long comparative case study across four socioeconomically and racially diverse schools in Broward County, Florida. State test scores were used to identify schools as either high-achieving or low-achieving.

The researchers found that in the higher performing schools a deliberate effort was made among the staff to connect with students. In focus groups and interviews, students in the high-performing schools described teachers and staff as “caring” and “involved”. There was also more of an emphasis on getting to know the students and their backgrounds as well as additional extracurricular involvement and an overall positive school climate.

Interestingly, the high- and low-performing schools did not differ across the board. For example, all four schools showed strong internal and external accountability systems. There were also few differences across all four schools in the quality of instruction and use of an aligned curriculum.

So, does this mean that positive school climate is the secret to shrinking the achievement gap? Like all studies, this one had a few important limitations. First, this study was only done across four schools within a specific school district. It is difficult to say whether or not these findings would generalize to all schools across the country. Second, the researchers did not examine the effect of school climate on student achievement, but instead measured both things at the same time. This means that we don’t know if the climate affected achievement or vice versa. There may also be some other unmeasured variable that contributed to both school climate and students’ performance.

However, this is not the first study that points to the relationship between school climate and academic performance. Researchers have also shown that the emotional climate within a classroom can contribute to a student’s academic success and that school climate is related to student behaviors. Districts across the country have even implemented school-wide interventions with the aim of improving school culture and climate.

But what I find most interesting about the Florida study is its emphasis on the relationships between teachers and students. I think that school climate ultimately boils down to the way that teachers and students interact with each other on a daily basis. Do teachers take the time to get to know their students? Do students and staff treat each other with respect? Does social-emotional learning happen every day? For some teachers, fostering a positive relationship with their students is an inherent part of their job; however, other teachers struggle with this due to large class sizes and the pressure to raise test scores. In order to reduce the achievement gap we need to start thinking about how factors beyond instruction and curricula impact students’ academic skills and social-emotional well-being.

Is Universal Pre-K a Good Thing?

Girl in Garden

Findings from a recent study out of Vanderbilt University suggest that pre-kindergarten may not be benefiting students as expected. Half of the pre-k applicants in a Tennessee school district were randomly admitted to a full year of pre-k. These students were then assessed at the end of each year up until 2nd grade. Surprisingly, by the end of 2nd grade, the students who attended pre-k performed lower on a series of academic and behavioral assessments compared to those who did not attend pre-k.

These findings come up against earlier research on pre-k education, such as the Perry Preschool Project, and the Abecedarian Project— two high-quality early education programs that were associated with life-long positive outcomes. In fact, the remarkable outcomes from these two programs have served as the basis for implementing pre-kindergarten at a much larger scale.

So, in the Vanderbilt study, why did students who received a year of pre-k education perform worse than those who did not? Here are some of my thoughts…

Are we measuring the right thing?

Most of the assessments used in the Vanderbilt study were standardized tests of academic ability. Some scholars have argued that we need to also be looking at how these early childhood interventions impact more broad aspects of child development. As I have mentioned before, children’s social-emotional competencies are important indicators for predicting long-term outcomes. It may be important to look at how pre-k programs are influencing non-cognitive skills, such as prosocial behaviors, self-management, and social relationships.

Is it too early?

Another thing to consider is that the effects of pre-k education may not appear until later in development. For both the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian project, the critical outcomes (like education attainment, employment, marriage satisfaction) could not be identified until the participants reached adulthood. Therefore, the true impacts of pre-k may not be truly evident for another few years (or even decades!).

Is the quality high enough?

An important aspect of both the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project was that they were “high quality” programs. Both programs consisted of an extremely small student to teacher ratios and focused on developing certain skills in young children, such as language development, decision-making, and self-reflection. When we start to implement pre-k at larger scale one of the biggest issues is maintaining that high quality. Unfortunately, universal pre-k may start to look a lot like regular kindergarten and elementary school in general. In other words, pre-k may become highly regimented with a strong focus on discipline and academic standards, and less time for exploration and free play. It’s a scary thought but perhaps the pre-k kids in the Vanderbilt study were simply burnt out by their 3rd year of formal education.

What are kids getting otherwise?

Finally, we need to consider what kids who don’t attend pre-k (i.e., the control group) are getting and why that could be beneficial as well. It is quite possible that some three and four-year-olds may be getting what they need developmentally outside of a formal school setting. They may be taken care of in their home or at a community daycare and provided with books and positive interactions with a variety of caregivers. These non-pre-k students may also be getting more one-on-one time with adults compared to those in larger pre-k classrooms. Instead of seeing pre-k education as a universal need, we may need to scale back and offer the highest quality to those at the most risk while also figuring out what skills are most important to focus on during these early years.

The Links Between Cognitive Skills and Altruism

Last year, I worked on a research study evaluating the outcomes of a video-based social-emotional learning program for early elementary school students. Part of this study involved conducting one-on-one assessments with kindergarten to 3rd grade students to measure specific social, emotional, and cognitive skills. These assessments included multiple-choice style questionnaires, computer-based tasks, and stories that involved identifying different characters’ emotions. But one of the more interesting assessments we used was called “The Stickers Game”.

In this game, each child was presented with ten very cool stickers and told that they were to decide how many of the stickers they wanted to keep for themselves and how many they wanted to give to another child; however, they did not know this other child and they would never get to meet them. The children made this decision on their own by placing the stickers they wanted to keep in an envelope with their name on it and the stickers they wanted to donate in a blank envelope. The children made their decision while us, the researchers, were not looking. The goal of this game was to understand children’s altruistic behavior.

What we found was quite interesting: children who had high scores on the computer-based cognitive task (specifically, the one that measured inhibitory control), were more likely to donate more of their stickers to the unknown child. What’s more interesting is that we were not the first researchers to find this. A study done in Columbia also found a significant association between scores on a similar cognitive task and an altruistic sharing game (they used candies instead of stickers), among preschool and kindergarten children.

So, what do these results mean? Inhibitory control—the ability to focus on important stimuli while inhibiting unimportant stimuli—and other self-regulation abilities likely play a role in children’s altruistic sharing. In order to shift from thinking about themselves to thinking about another individual, children must be able to regulate their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Cognitive skills contribute to children’s ability to think about the needs of others and even take on another person’s perspective.

Because our results are correlational and cross-sectional (i.e., all of these assessments were done at the same time), we cannot make any assumptions about whether improved cognitive skills leads to altruistic sharing or vice versa. It may be that these skills and behaviors mutually enhance each other across development. It is also possible that some other factor is influencing the development of both of these competencies. Despite the fact that more research is needed in this area, what we found still points to the connections between skills like attention, self-regulation, and inhibition, and prosocial and altruistic behaviors. And the good news is cognitive skills are malleable!