School & District Management

Survey: Habits of Talented Math Students

By Liana Loewus — April 14, 2017 2 min read

High school juniors and seniors who participated in a prestigious national math competition said they tend to study alone and to learn best when they grasp the underlying concepts behind math formulas.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics conducted a survey of nearly 1,700 students who participated in the Moody’s Mega Math Challenge, a contest held online annually in which high school students use mathematical modeling to solve real-world problems. For instance, students have previously been asked to come up with a model predicting how much plastic waste will be in landfills in 10 years.

Participants are generally self-selected or encouraged by their teachers to participate, and tend to be talented, motivated math students, said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, a subsidiary of Moody’s Corporation, which sponsored the survey. Winning teams receive scholarship awards of up to $20,000, to be divided among team members and put toward college.

Concerning students’ interests and study habits, the survey found:


  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents selected “understanding the underlying concepts behind math formulas” as what works best in learning math. Nearly a quarter said practice works best. Very few students said memorization was most helpful.
  • When asked what most contributed to their interest in math, about half of student’s said they just naturally enjoy the subject. A quarter of respondents cited “a good teacher” as being most influential in their math interest. Less than 10 percent of students pointed to parents or friends.
  • About 45 percent of students said they study “alone in a quiet room or library, with minimal distractions.” Another nearly 40 percent said they study alone but with distractions, such as “social media, nonschool-related websites, video games, TV, music, etc.” Very few respondents said they study with other students and try to help each other, or that they study “in a room with friends or family members, and frequently get distracted.”
  • When faced with a difficult math concept, respondents were most likely to say they “keep trying” until they figure it out on their own. (Twenty-nine percent said this.). About a quarter of students said they ask a teacher for help, and 17 percent said they look for answers on the Internet. Students were less likely to say they ask a parent or friend for help, or take a break. And less than 1 percent said they “skip it and move on.”

As Zandi noted, the students who took the survey are likely to be all-around good students, not just in math. But the finding about persistence (in the chart above) may be math-specific. “I think in math in particular, the satisfaction is in the solving of the problem and getting an answer,” he said. “There’s actually a real rush when that happens.”

For the math challenge’s final event on April 24, six teams will solve mathematical modeling problems and explain their answers in front of a panel of judges at the Moody’s headquarters in New York City.

Charts: Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, 2017

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.