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Research finds confidence in math not enough to be a ‘math person’

Confidence in mathematics isn’t enough for students to see themselves as a “math person.”

Dr. Jennifer Cribbs

Dr. Jennifer Cribbs

“The common belief in our culture is that you’re a math person or you’re not,” said Dr. Jennifer Cribbs, assistant professor in WKU’s School of Teacher Education.

However, Dr. Cribbs’ research shows that students’ perceptions are important factors for students’ identity development. Specifically, students must be recognized by others as being a “math person” and develop related interests for their math identity to develop.

In the research, funded by the National Science Foundation, Dr. Cribbs and her colleagues — Zahra Hazari at Florida International University and Gerhard Sonnert and Philip M. Sadler at Harvard University – surveyed 10,000 college calculus students at 134 colleges and universities across the United States about their perceptions of math to better understand how math identity develops.

Their research, “Establishing an Explanatory Model for Mathematics Identity,” is published in Child Development and is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdev.12363/epdf.

“Math identity is a topic that’s receiving increased attention,” said Dr. Cribbs, who began working on the project while she was pursuing her doctorate at Clemson University.

The research examined how students’ math confidence (competence/performance beliefs), interest, recognition and identity were related. Their findings indicate that confidence has an indirect effect on math identity but that math interest (“I enjoy math”) and math recognition (“I believe I’m a math person and others think I am”) have a direct effect. This result indicates that while confidence is necessary, it is not sufficient in students developing a positive mathematics identity.

“Math recognition had the largest effect on someone’s level of math identity,” Dr. Cribbs said.

Providing a better understanding of students’ math identity development is important as the education system places a greater emphasis on STEM-related careers, she said.

Math is the gatekeeper for all STEM fields, especially engineering, and math identity can be a predictor of STEM success and persistence, Dr. Cribbs said.

If teachers, parents, administrators and community members want to find ways to provide students with math-related experiences and opportunities that empower them and open doors for future careers, it is important to not only instill confidence but also foster students’ personal interests and meaningfully recognize them.

“We need to move beyond just building student confidence in mathematics. It is not enough,” Dr. Cribbs said.

Contact: Jennifer Cribbs, (270) 745-4368

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