Middle-Schoolers Like Math, But P.E. More Popular, Survey Finds

By Erik W. Robelen — March 08, 2012 3 min read
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Do you think most middle-school students would rather do their math homework or take out the trash? What if the choice was between those math equations and eating broccoli?

While you’re puzzling over these questions (the answers aren’t altogether obvious, are they?), I’ll share a few other tidbits from a new survey that aims to tease out the learning preferences and habits of U.S. middle school students, with an emphasis on mathematics.

First, rest easy, all you math teachers: 70 percent of the responding students said they like math. In fact, it’s one of the most popular subjects.

No, math didn’t eclipse physical education, which came in first place, the favorite of 18 percent of respondents. But math came in a very respectable third place, the top pick for 15 percent of middle schoolers. That’s just below art, but beating out lots of other subjects, from music and science to social studies, English, and foreign languages.

Here’s the full breakdown, in rank order, for favorite subject:

• Physical Education: 18 percent
• Art: 16 percent
• Math: 15 percent
• Computers: 13 percent
• Music: 11 percent
• Science: 11 percent
• Social Studies: 8 percent
• English: 7 percent
• Foreign Languages: 2 percent

The independent survey was commissioned by Raytheon Co., a leading U.S. aerospace and defense contractor that is seeking to boost student interest in math and science. The poll, conducted last month, was based on a national sample of 1,000 middle-school students ages 10-14. You can check out an infographic highlighting some of the results here.

(Speaking of course preferences, I recently wrote about which Advanced Placement subjects are growing most rapidly. Among them were environmental science, geography, and Chinese. I also blogged about gender preferences. In the math realm, participation in the popular Calculus AB program was about evenly divided, but in the Calculus BC course, males were more heavily weighted, at 59 percent, than females. Calculus BC covers all of the content in the AB course, plus additional material.)

Back to the Raytheon survey, it probably comes as little surprise that most students said they prefer hands-on, interactive activities or computer-based lessons to more traditional approaches to learning such as studying textbooks or listening to their teacher lecture.

The survey also asked for students’ perceptions of how math fits into the nation’s future, and their own. Fifty-eight percent said math will be important to the future. And the vast majority recognize the role math plays in certain careers involving technology, such as building robots, bridges, and smartphones. And yet, students don’t necessarily see a need for math expertise in some other career paths that require precise calculations. For example, it found that 47 percent see a need for math in engineering sporting gear such as skateboards.

Finally, the survey probed students’ relationships to math at home. Only about half of middle schoolers, 48 percent, said they enjoy learning math outside school. (By the way, the students reported spending an average of 7.9 hours per day interacting with media technology such as computers, tablets, smartphones, and televisions, but only 1.8 hours of that is using computers for homework and classwork.)

As to the dilemma about tackling math homework vs. taking out the trash or eating broccoli, I won’t keep you hanging any longer.

Never fear, math teachers: Math homework eked out a win over trash duty, 56 to 44 percent! At the same time, math lost out to eating broccoli, with 56 percent preferring the iron-rich vegetable.

Well, maybe if the alternative had been eating brussels sprouts, math homework would have come out on top?

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