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Brain Science Backs Up Role of 'Mindset' in Motivating Students for Math

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A challenging math problem can make some students break into a cold sweat and others excited to wrap their brains around a puzzle. 

A wealth of research suggests that a student's academic "mindset"—whether she believes math skill is an inborn, fixed trait or that it can be grown through practice—can make the difference in how she engages with the subject. Now, a forthcoming study in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education gives some of the first biological evidence that presenting math in a way that encourages a growth mindset changes not just students' motivation to learn, but the the way their brains tackle problems.

Researchers from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom used an EEG, which measures electrical impulses, to track brain activity as college students worked through either standard math problems or those previously shown in research from Stanford University researcher Jo Boaler to encourage a student's growth mindset, such as approaches that:

  • Have multiple methods, pathways, and representations.
  • Give students opportunities to conduct their own inquiries.
  • Ask the problem before teaching the method to solve it.
  • Ask students to explain the math in a visual representation, such as a chart.
  • Use a task that can engage students of both higher and lower math ability.
  • Ask students to reason out and convince someone of their findings.

Unlike similar studies, researchers did not tell participants anything about the concepts of growth or fixed mindsets, but they did survey the students using mindset-related questions from the Program for International Student Assessment, such as "I am strongly motivated to solve the problem," "I intend to put in a good effort solving this problem," and "Doing well at this problem means a lot to me."

Students who were given standard math problems were more accurate than those who saw the adapted problems, but they showed less and less interest in continuing the test as they answered more questions. By contrast, the students answering the adapted math problems became slightly more motivated as they worked.

At the same time, researchers found stronger patterns of activity associated with motivation and engagement—shifting activity to the left side of the prefrontal cortex—in the brains of students who were working through the "growth" adapted math problems. In prior studies, this pattern of "motivation-related" brain activity tends to decline when students work through challenging problems, but it increased with the growth-adapted questions. 

"By presenting mathematical problems formulated according to [math growth mindset] theory to learners, it is possible to increase learner motivation ... by engaging the brain's stimuli reward pathways," the researchers concluded. "This provides evidence that, by only making simple changes to how mathematical problems are presented, it is possible to increase the motivation of mathematical learners."

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