Study: Student Motivation, Study Strategies Trump IQ for Learning Gains

By Anthony Rebora — December 26, 2012 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A hot new research study out of Germany finds that, when it comes to student growth in mathematics, motivation and effective study skills are more important than sheer intelligence.

The study, published in the journal Child Development, monitored the progress of some 3500 German students from 5th through 10th grade. In addition to giving them an IQ test and tracking their scores on annual standardized math exams, the researchers kept tabs on the students’ attitudes towards math and their study methods.

In the end, the study found that the students’ intelligence level was closely linked with initial competency in math, but (after controlling for demographics) not with growth or new learning in the subject. What mattered there was diligence and study strategies based on conceptual understanding.

A Time story recaps:

So the children who improved in math over the years were disproportionately those who said they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with statements such as, "When doing math, the harder I try, the better I perform," or "I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject"- even if they had not started out as high-achieving students. In contrast, kids who said they were motivated purely by the desire to get good grades saw no greater improvement over the average. As for study strategies, those who said they tried to forge connections between mathematical ideas typically improved faster than kids who employed more cursory rote-learning techniques.

English teacher Larry Ferlazzo, who highlights the study as perhaps the most important of the year for educators, digs deeper:

A quick summary is that, though extrinsic motivation and "surface learning" (such as memorization) might result in short-term gains in assessments, they actually hurt long-term (five-year) academic growth. The development of student intrinsic motivation, "deep learning strategies" (requiring "elaboration" and connections to other knowledge -- I think that might correspond to the idea of "transfer"), and students feeling that they had more of a sense of control (though this last quality had a less consistent effect -- it seemed to depend on grade level) of their learning were the main ingredients necessary for increased academic growth

The lead researcher for the study, Kou Murayama, who is now at the University of California Los Angeles, believes the findings could be a source of inspiration and development for schools. “Our study suggests that students’ competencies to learn in math involve factors that can be nurtured by education,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.