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Measuring Math Mindset Proves We're Good at What We Enjoy | NeuroConnections

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn directs research for ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our NeuroConnections series, where we explore the bridge between neuroscience and education.

NeuroConnections logoThis past October, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual conference brought together over 30,000 researchers, all interested in how the brain impacts our lives and how our lives impact our brain. Talk about a party! It was here that neuroscientist Lang Chen and colleagues from Stanford University previewed a new study (also recently profiled in EdWeek) that bridges three topics of great interest to ExpandED Schools: neuroscience, growth mindset and academic achievement.

Just over a year ago on the NeuroConnections blog, we highlighted an article entitled A base for neuroscience in mathematics education, which explained how solving math problems involves an entire network of brain regions working in concert -- and that some of these areas are still in the process of maturing during adolescence. Now, in a new yet-to-be-released study, Chen and colleagues explore the potential impact of student mindset on the relationship between brain activity and math achievement. In their study, elementary school-aged children completed assessments measuring their IQ, math and reading abilities, and attitudes towards math using a scale known as the Positive Mindset Scale for Math (PMSM), which asked questions such as "Are you having fun with math?" The children were then scanned using fMRI while being asked whether various addition problems they saw up on a screen were correct or not.

From a behavioral perspective, results revealed that students with a more positive math mindset (higher PMSM scores) performed better on the math competence assessment in the scanner. Digging deeper into the potential brain regions associated with this finding, data revealed that students with a more positive math mindset also had increased activation in areas of the brain known to be involved in math problem solving, including two areas we’ve discussed previously in the blog: the hippocampus, involved in memory retrieval, and the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex which is involved in cognitive control and working memory. (Additional areas involved and known to play a role in math-related functions included the supplementary motor area, right lingual gyrus and dorsal cerebellum.) However, not only was activity greater in these regions, but both math performance and positive math mindset were associated with greater functional connectivity between these math-related regions, indicating greater efficiency at retrieving them when needed.

Thus while previous studies have explored the connection between brain activity and math performance, this study is the first to look at mindset as a potential mediating variable to that relationship and the first to suggest that students’ math performance could be impacted by how they feel about math. It appears that making math fun is an interesting and worthwhile challenge for classroom teachers and expanded learning educators alike.

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