To Improve in Math, Motivation – Not IQ – Is Key

One’s ability to cope with math could be less of a function of a student’s IQ and more a function of their ability to apply themselves to a task. According to, recent research shows that motivation is key when it comes to conquering mathematics, although the motivation has to come from the student and not be directed by parents, guardians or teachers.

The conclusions come from the study of 3,500 German school children and show that those who managed to climb from average math knowledge to nearly the top quartile did so by being motivated and employing effective learning techniques.

Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be a correlation between IQ and improvement in math skills.

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.

To identify what contributed to improvement in math the most, researchers led by Kou Murayama, a psychology researcher at the University of California Los Angeles, tested the IQ and level of knowledge of 3,500 school children from Bavaria in 5th and subsequently in 10th grade. Their motivation was determined based on their agreement with statements like “I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject.”

On the initial round of tests, students with highest IQs also scored the best on math knowledge tests. Yet, although IQ could be a good predictor of math success, it was a poor indicator when it came to improvement and progress. Instead, improvement was most strongly linked with motivation, with those who made the biggest jumps over the course of 5 years also overwhelmingly scoring the highest on their motivation exam five years ago.

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.

The rub, of course, is that this motivation has to come from within. The children of parents who applied consistent pressure showed no significant improvement at all.

01 3, 2013