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Math motivation: Attitude, anxiety, and achievement

Math motivation: Attitude, anxiety, and achievement

“Should I be concerned about my students’ attitudes toward mathematics?”

This is one of the questions researchers sought to answer when they set out to analyze the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. That year, 510,000 high school-aged students (specifically 15- and 16-year-olds) in 65 countries and economies, including the United States, participated in the assessment.1

The question is especially important when we consider how few students say they study mathematics because they enjoy it—only 38% of students in the 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries said they did. Moreover, 43% of students believed they were not good at math and 59% often worried that math class would be difficult for them.2

So what is the answer? Do students’ attitudes about math matter?

The PISA researchers concluded that, yes, we should be concerned about students’ feelings toward math—and they’re not the only experts who say so.

How does math motivation relate to math achievement?

High school
A separate PISA analysis reviewed the association between math motivation and math achievement in high school-aged students. This study looked at two different types of motivation—intrinsic, which described if students enjoyed and were interested in math, and instrumental, which described if students valued math for its role in their education or career goals—and found both correlated to math achievement.3

On average, students in the bottom quarter of the intrinsic math motivation index scored 472, well below the international average of 494, while students in the top quarter scored 521—well above the average. For instrumental math motivation, students in the bottom quarter had an average score of 477 and students in the top quarter had an average score of 519.

Math Motivation & Math Scores

On average, across all student groups, an increase in one “unit” of intrinsic math motivation was associated with an increase of 19.4 points on the math assessment. Similarly, an increase in one “unit” of instrumental math motivation was associated with math scores rising by 17.6 points. (To put this data in perspective, there was a difference of about 2.5 “units” of motivation between the bottom and top quarters for both intrinsic and instrumental motivation.)

Middle school
The relationship between math motivation and math achievement is not unique to high school; it can be seen among middle school students as well. A study of roughly 3,000 eighth-grade students across the United States found students’ attitudes toward and interest in math had a “substantial direct effect” on their math achievement.4

While general motivation toward school (as measured by attendance and punctuality) also had a direct effect on math achievement, it was smaller than that of math attitude. Motivation toward classwork, as measured by whether students showed up prepared for class, had no significant direct effect on math achievement. However, both affected math attitude—the authors suggested attendance and participation in classes exposed students to math instruction and math-related experiences that influenced math attitude—and thus indirectly affected math achievement.

Math attitude didn’t just affect math achievement. It also appeared to play a role in the effort students put into mathematics. Students with a more positive attitude toward math were more likely to spend more time on their math homework—which, in turn, had a direct effect on their math achievement. (Classwork motivation also had an effect on time spent on homework and influenced math achievement via this route as well.) Overall, the researchers’ four-variable model explained a “significant amount of variance” (46%) in mathematics achievement.

Elementary school
What about elementary school, when students are just beginning their math journeys? Once again, it seems students’ feelings toward math may play a role in achievement. One study of second and third graders found that students who felt nervous when answering math questions had lower performance than students who had little or no math anxiety. The authors concluded that “math anxiety was significantly and negatively correlated with math proficiency.”5

(Note that math anxiety is not quite the same as a negative attitude toward math; anxiety is more emotional whereas attitude is more related to students’ motivations and thoughts. However, the two tend to correlate quite closely with each other.6)

What are students’ attitudes toward math?

Among the OECD countries that participated in the 2012 PISA, the United States performed below average in mathematics, ranked 27 out of 34.7 When we examine American students’ attitudes toward math, we also see low levels of math motivation.3

In terms of intrinsic motivation, only 34% said they enjoyed reading about math and 37% said they did math because they enjoyed it. A higher number, 46%, said they looked forward to their math lessons—but the same number also said their teacher had not explained math concepts well that week. While half the students said they were interested in the things they learned in math class (50%), nearly as many said their teacher did not get students interested in the material (47%).

For instrumental motivation, American students generally recognized the importance of math for college and career success. Four out of five believed that learning math would help them get a job and the same number felt math would improve their career prospects in general. A large majority, 81%, also said math was important because it would help them in the future. However, despite recognizing the key connections between math and future success, only 48% of students felt math was one of their best subjects, 46% said they weren’t good at solving math problems, and 32% admitted to making bad guesses on math quizzes. Perhaps more worryingly, 23% felt helpless when doing math problems and 57% often worried that they would have a difficult time in math class.

There is good news, too: Almost all American students (95%) believed they can succeed in math if they put in enough effort! Most also felt they were in control of their test scores: Only 28% felt they would do poorly on a math test even if they studied for it and 62% even said they would study harder than required for math classes.

Students' Math Motivation

Students aren’t wrong to believe in the power of effort. An analysis of nearly 7,000 American high school students found that effort had a “significant, positive effect on math gains.” In fact, across all four tracks studied—honors/advanced, academic, general (reference), and vocational/other—effort had significant, positive effects on achievement in every track. The results further indicated that the effects of effort on learning are the same for all students, regardless of their track.8

Another important finding of this study was that, while prior effort did have an effect on current achievement—learning is cumulative, after all—the effect was much smaller than that of current effort. The authors concluded that students who try harder learn more, regardless of how much effort they exerted in previous years. In other words, it’s never too late for students to see the benefits of trying harder, even if they didn’t do so in the past.

It seems that our students have great potential, if only we can harness it.

How can we motivate students to boost math achievement?

Students are as varied as the math problems they’re asked to solve, which means there is no single approach that’s guaranteed to work for all of them. Still, researchers have detected patterns and approaches that seem to help the majority of students develop positive attitudes toward math, reduce math anxiety, and increase math achievement. Here are some research-based recommendations from notable math experts.

The PISA researchers mentioned at the beginning of this post have several suggestions for educators,2 such as:

  • Tell students what they have to learn, what is expected of them, and how they are progressing.

  • Provide students with ongoing, informal feedback on their progress (using a formative assessment process).

  • Encourage students to work in small groups to build confidence.

  • Use computers in mathematics lessons to increase motivation.

  • Explore innovative teaching tools for math, including dynamic graphical, numerical, and visual technology applications.

  • Make math lessons personally relevant to learners.

Dr. Carol S. Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, suggests that improving students’ math mindsets can also improve their math achievement.9 Her recommendations include:

  • Encourage a growth mindset and teach students that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger and works better the more it is exercised.

  • Present “math geniuses” and famous mathematicians as people who loved and were dedicated to their craft.

  • Recognize and admire students who seek out challenges, work hard, and learn from their mistakes.

  • Compliment effort, especially when students work hard but don’t do well—and express confidence that students can and will reach their goals if they keep working on them.

Two cognitive scientists—Daniel T. Willingham from the University of Virginia and Sian Beilock from the University of Chicago—examined how math anxiety develops to provide educators with recommendations for preventing or reducing its impact on students’ math performance.10 They offered these suggestions:

  • Ensure students master fundamental skills, as proficiency with basic numerical and spatial processing may prevent math anxiety from developing in young students.

  • Focus on how to teach math concepts rather than on the math concepts themselves, because strong teaching strategies can lessen educator anxiety—and less-anxious teachers have less-anxious students.

  • Give students the time and space to work through their answers, since time pressure can increase students’ math anxiety.

  • Provide students with the opportunity to write freely about their emotions about math exams prior to taking them.

  • Suggest concrete strategies for approaching a particular problem differently, especially when students struggle.

Although a positive attitude toward math cannot replace time spent learning and practicing math skills, it can certainly provide the fuel students need to keep going when they encounter new or challenging math concepts. Imagine what your students might accomplish if they approached math with the power of a positive attitude!

For more insights on changing students’ mindsets about math, watch our on-demand webinar on achieving math milestones.

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1 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2014). PISA 2012 results in focus: What 15-year-olds know and what they can do with what they know. Retrieved from
2 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2016). Ten questions for mathematics teachers … and how PISA can help answer them. Paris, France: OECD Publishing.
3 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2013). PISA 2012 results: Ready to learn: Students’ engagement, drive and self-beliefs (Volume III). Retrieved from
4 Singh, K., Granville, M., & Dika, S. (2002). Mathematics and science achievement: Effects of motivation, interest, and academic engagement. The Journal of Educational Research, 2(6), 323-332.
5 Wu, S. S., Barth, M., Amin, H., Malcarne, V., & Menon, V. (2012). Math anxiety in second and third graders and its relation to mathematics achievement. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 162, 1-11.
6 Dowker, A., Sarkar, A., & Looi, C. Y. (2016). Mathematics anxiety: What have we learned in 60 years? Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 508, 1-16. Retrieved from
7 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (n.d.). Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results from PISA 2012: United States country note. Retrieved from
8 Carbonaro, W. (2005). Tracking, students’ effort, and academic achievement. Sociology of Education, 78(1), 27-49.
9 Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement. New York, NY: The Opportunity Equation.
10 Beilock, S. L., & Willingham, D. T. (2014). Ask the cognitive scientist: Math anxiety: Can teachers help students reduce it? American Educator. Retrieved from


  1. Jody Steinhaus says:

    ‘Students’ feelings toward math may play a role in achievement.’ I truly believe this. I try to encourage families who may not have had success in math during their schooling to stay positive and encourage the children in their math journey.

  2. Lauren Thrasher says:

    This is very interesting data and I will be sharing it with my math teachers. I love Carol Dweck and her research on growth mindset.

  3. s. bellomo says:


  4. Andrea says:

    This is a very powerful article. Telling students ahead of time what they are expected to learn and showing them their progress is important to build their self-esteem and see that math isn’t “scary”. Renaissance does a nice job of incorporating important items into their products, such as computer use, graphics, and personalizing math to each child’s level of learning.

  5. Christina says:

    Encouraging words and offering extra help and resources. I also love to read stories about those who struggled in math and then changed their attitudes.

  6. Virginia D. Wiedenfeld, M.Ed. says:

    I will be sharing this article with our staff!

  7. Carol roberts says:

    So true!

  8. Lisa Capon says:

    Great article. Good points.

  9. Shonda Hill says:

    Great info

  10. P R says:

    I have my students engage in small group task assessments in which they work out a problem using the skills they have been taught. In other words, I have students apply the skills that they have learned in a problem solving situation.

    I also have my students create an Interactive Math Notebook over the course of the year.

  11. Dvawn Maza says:

    Very good information and very encouraging!

  12. Rita Platt says:

    I LOVE the section on how to motivate students for math learning.

  13. Sandra says:

    I struggled with Math. As a learner I would have appreciated one of the suggestions from the article to “Tell students what they have to learn, what is expected of them, and how they are progressing.” Knowing in advance what I was going to do and how I would be expected to learn it would have been helpful. I can help my students with Math now because I have all those teacher plans with that knowledge and I get it. I let them know too and I see less anxiety and more asking for help.

  14. Milecha Young says:

    I make sure that math is fun to them. I try to open with something interesting and relevant to students.

  15. Liana Ferrer says:

    Not a math teacher, but I still encourage my students to practice their skills.

  16. David Keech says:

    We also use Genius Hour with our 7th grade students, helping them connect math to the topics in their world that interest each student. This makes math relevant and gets kids excited about math connections.

  17. carly says:

    One more idea to motivate students: Let them retest! AM makes retesting easy. Sure they may need to do another exercise and maybe they received too much help on a practice so a test generated before they were really ready. So what. The number one way I have removed test anxiety is by showing students that they have the opportunity to improve. As long as the students are motivated to improve, I let them. After all, most important is mastering each concept. If they fail a concept, I don’t think it helps to just move students along to fit a pacing guide. AM is perfect for letting students practice new and older concepts at the same time. Therefore, I allow my students to keep testing until they pass!

  18. jason says:

    Again, showing how important feedback is when educating students.

  19. Ami K. Edwards says:

    Great information and yes the attitude towards math is important.

  20. Alecia Walkuski says:

    While I don’t teach math, a fellow teacher who does has this technique for boosting math motivation: She gives students one point of extra credit for writing “I love math” on the top of their assignments. It helps to put a positive spin on things.

  21. a says:

    trying to find ways to supplement the math program to keep it interesting. same ole activities day after day. kids – and me – get tired of the lessons

  22. Melissa Bernard says:

    I am sharing this with our math teachers!

  23. Laura says:

    Attitude and Motivation are everything !

  24. Alejandra Hernandez says:

    It is important to motivate the students.

  25. Belinda says:

    Great information!!!

  26. Kelsie Haggard says:

    Very interesting data, motivation is extremely important.

  27. Katy says:

    I LOVE Math….and show my excitement for it daily. I try to use this to encourage my Second grade students to love math also by showing how fun it can be.

  28. Amy says:

    I think that if we start in kindergarten making math concrete for them they will not struggle so much as it moves toward the abstract. Too many abstract concepts are begun before they are ready to think this way, and this produces the feeling of “I’m not good at math”.

  29. Angela Domond says:

    Students who are more confident in math usually have better problem solving skills.

  30. Melissa C says:

    I love this article! It highlights how critical our responses as educators are to students who do not always provide the correct answer. Math classrooms should be very low risk settings for this very reason. Your classroom should be supportive, encouraging, and one with a sense of community that is evident on the very first day in order to have successful students.

  31. Alisha Taylor says:

    This is a great article that I will be be sharing with my coworker.

  32. Sarah Nitsos says:

    I struggled with math all through school. It began in third grade with timed tests and totally turned me off from math. Unfortunately then people let me off the hook by saying, “Your are just not a math person. Some people are good at reading and others math.”

    This article shows how important it is to foster a good math relationship for our students. Our district is working on CGI ( Cognitively Guided Instrction) in Math and it seems to be really changing our students relationship with math. Excited to see how it pans out as students progress.

  33. Maria Luke says:

    Great information, will be sharing with my team.

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