Many students experience anxiety about math, a subject they perceive to be particularly difficult. But math is very important in our society; indeed, many jobs require solid math skills. Fostering students’ intrinsic motivation is one way to encourage them to persist when they encounter difficulties. When students have a high level of intrinsic motivation, they will engage in an activity because it is fun and interesting, enjoying it for its own sake.
Because it is so common for a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn math to decline in the course of elementary school, it is important to identify the factors that shape that motivation. In a recent study, my co-authors and I investigated teachers’ beliefs about what is required for a student to succeed in math, looking at the importance teachers attach to innate ability.
Academics and members of the general public tend to believe that certain fields, notably math, require more innate ability than others. But what about elementary school teachers? Do they, too, believe that innate ability plays a more important role in success in math than in other subjects?
Supporting students’ learning and increasing their competencies are among the essential responsibilities of a teacher. We therefore sought to determine how a teacher’s belief that success in math depends on innate ability, which cannot be taught, matters to students’ intrinsic motivation—and particularly how it matters to students who struggle to keep up.
We expected to find that the intrinsic motivation of low-achieving students suffers when their teachers attach too much importance to innate ability. In these teachers’ classrooms, children who receive a low grade in math might conclude that they simply lack the innate ability to succeed in math, and that this is unlikely to change in the future. We tested this hypothesis in a large study in Germany that included more than 800 elementary school students and their teachers.
“The stronger a teacher’s conviction that innate ability is crucial for a child’s success in math, the less interest and enjoyment their low-achieving students show in that subject.”
We found that elementary school teachers, too, believe that innate ability is more important for a child’s success in math than in language arts. Furthermore, we found a negative relationship between teachers’ beliefs about innate ability and low-achieving students’ intrinsic motivation. That is, the stronger a teacher’s conviction that innate ability is crucial for a child’s success in math, the less interest and enjoyment their low-achieving students showed in that subject.
This negative correlation was evident in the case of the lowest-achieving 30 percent of the student population. For students whose achievement is average or above average, we found no correlation between teachers’ beliefs and students’ intrinsic motivation. Because students with average or high grades are less likely to question their own competence in math, it probably doesn’t matter as much whether or not their teachers believe that success in math depends primarily on innate ability.
In summary, our findings suggest that teachers’ beliefs about what is needed to succeed in math may determine whether or not they are able to create a classroom atmosphere that promotes learning for all students. An inclusive and motivating atmosphere is more likely to be achieved if teachers place greater emphasis on growth and learning, rather than on innate ability, and provide their students—especially low-achievers—with concrete strategies for improvement.