Having A Positive Attitude Really Does Help Kids Succeed In Math

A good attitude toward math can boost your fact-based memory, according to an investigation by Stanford Researchers. gorillaimages/Shutterstock

If a school teacher ever sniped at you using the old adage that “attitude is everything”, you may want to go back in time and un-roll your eyes.

Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine have just discovered a neurological pathway that connects a student’s positive attitude toward mathematics with better performance on arithmetic tests.  


“Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ,” said lead author Lang Chen, PhD, in a statement. The paper, published in Psychological Science, notes that this effect appears to be independent of other factors that impact math performance.

This is not the first investigation into the effect of attitude on mathematics--educational researchers have been trying for decades to understand how motivation, cognitive ability, and teaching style interplay in regards to a student’s academic achievement. Previous groups have observed that children who are interested in math and perceive themselves to be good at it tend to fare better on tests than those with opposing views.

Such data presents a chicken and the egg puzzle: Are children eager and confident to learn math due to their inherent intellectual capabilities, or does realizing that you have an aptitude for something ignite a spark of interest?

The Stanford team hypothesized the answer is a little bit of both.


"We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional," Chen said. "We think it's like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. And it can probably go the other way and be a vicious circle, too."

To assess the relationship between mental state and cognition, Chen’s team used questionnaires to establish IQ, reading ability, working memory capacity, and general demographics for 240 children aged 7 to 10 years. The kids’ attitude and level of anxiety toward math, plus their perception of their math ability, was also assessed using surveys given to them and their parents. Actual math aptitude was measured by a test composed of math word problems and facts about arithmetic.

Next, 47 of the 240 children and 28 control children were given math problems to solve while undergoing real-time MRI scans.

An example of a functional MRI taken during an unrelated working memory test. Wikimedia Commons

The images showed that children with positive math attitudes had increased activation in the hippocampus, a brain area that plays a major role in learning and fact-based memory.


Interestingly, activation of brain’s reward centers—areas that use dopamine messaging to condition you to seek appealing stimuli such as food, drugs and social interaction—was not associated with positive math attitude. Several existing education theories speculate that the intermediate between math attitude and success in the subject is motivation in the form of feel-good hits of dopamine from the amygdala and ventral striatum.

"Instead, we saw that if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain's problem-solving capacities," said senior author Vinod Menon, PhD.

Though it is not entirely surprising to know that passion and excitement for an academic subject make you more likely to succeed, it’s nice to learn more about the underlying brain processes. Moreover, Dr Menon hopes these findings could eventually lead to better interventions for students who are struggling.