Study: Recognition of Abilities Helps Drive Interest In Math, STEM


According to a new study published by Florida International University Professor Zahra Hazari in the journal Child Development, interest and recognition can help increase a student’s enthusiasm for math and their willingness to pursue a career in STEM fields.

The study, “Establishing an Explanatory Model for Mathematics Identity,” suggests that an increased interest in the area of math is not something a person is born with, as was previously thought.  It continues to say that students who have an increased confidence level in the subject do not necessarily become interested in it.

“Much of becoming a ‘math person’ and pursuing a related STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) career has to do with being recognized and becoming interested – not just being able to do it,” said Hazari, who specializes in STEM Education at FIU’s College of Education and STEM Transformation Institute, according to the NEA blog. “This is important for promoting math education for everyone since it is not just about confidence and performance.”

Participants included over 9,000 college students enrolled in calculus courses across the country.  Researchers discovered that students who were enrolled in higher-level courses were doing so mainly due to an interest in the subject that evolved from some form of recognition of their abilities previously given to them, as well as finding the topic interesting.

The survey asked participants whether they felt family, friends, and math teachers viewed them as a “math person.”  Those who responded positively to the question were classified as feeling recognized.

“It is surprising that a student who becomes confident in her math abilities will not necessarily develop a math identity,” Hazari said. “We really have to engage students in more meaningful ways through their own interests and help them overcome challenges and recognize them for doing so. If we want to empower students and provide access to STEM careers, it can’t just be about confidence and performance. Attitudes and personal motivation matters immensely.”

A separate study performed at Washington State University looked at 122 undergraduate students as well as 184 other participants who were all asked to complete a math test and then take a guess as to how well they did.  One group received feedback pertaining to their scores prior to giving their guesses, while the other group had no feedback, and were also asked to state whether they held any interest in pursuing a career related to math.

While male participants repeatedly overestimated their math exam scores, women tended to predict their scores more accurately.  However, it was found that more men wanted to pursue a math-related career than women, suggesting that the belief that a person is competent in a subject is directly related to the decision to follow a career path in that field, writes Dana Dovey for Medical Daily.

Researchers hope to use the study findings in order to get more girls interested in careers in math and science.  To date, women in the United States make up almost half of the work force, although they account for only 24% of STEM positions, or those in science, technology, engineering or math jobs.