Kids who feel positive about their work do better in math

A fifth-grade instructor goes over an equation during math class at Dever Elementary School in Boston.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2016
A fifth-grade instructor goes over an equation during math class at Dever Elementary School in Boston.

Some kids moan when asked to do math homework; others chatter about what they learned in class that day. A student’s feelings toward math — and perhaps other subjects — can impact his or her classroom achievement over time, according to a long-term study of middle-school students.

Regardless of a student’s intelligence or economic background, those who took pride in and enjoyed math had better grades over time during the study, while performance spiraled downward for those experiencing anger, anxiety, or shame about the subject.

“Emotions are a powerful driver of students’ learning,” says study author Reinhard Pekrun, a professor of psychology at the University of Munich in Germany.


The findings, published this month in the journal Child Development, should encourage parents, teachers, and administrators to bolster positive emotions and reduce negative emotions when it comes to math, says Pekrun. And that doesn’t mean putting on a smile every time you talk about fractions. Clear, enthusiastic instruction — during which a student is engaged rather than anxious or bored — can promote a self-reinforcing path to academic success.

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The study relied on data from the Project for the Analysis of Learning and Achievement in Mathematics, or PALMA, which followed 3,425 German students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds during grades 5 through 9. Researchers tracked students’ grades and math test scores, and gave them a survey each year to probe their feelings about the subject.

Other studies have examined the link between learning and children’s emotions, but most focused on a single moment in time, such as one day or week of learning. The PALMA study, on the other hand, tracked learning and the effect of emotion over years.

Overall, the results were as one might expect: Positive emotions were beneficial to learning while negative emotions were detrimental. Yet they do contradict the theory that if you enjoy something, you might not put as much effort into it.

During five years of schooling, students with high intelligence had good grades and test scores, but those who also enjoyed and felt proud about their math work had even higher achievement. And students who experienced negative emotions — anger, anxiety, shame, boredom, you name it — were more likely to have lower achievement.


The findings held true no matter a child’s economic background, gender, or general intelligence, and the correlations got stronger as the years went on.

“Students who get positive feedback develop positive emotions, learn better, and their enjoyment further increases,” says Pekrun. “For those who are bored or anxious, performance deteriorates, they get negative feedback, become even more anxious or hopeless, and continue to spiral downward.”

Educators can prevent negative feedback loops, and promote positive ones by being knowledgeable, and not anxious, about their subject or those emotions can pass onto the children, says Pekrun.

He also suggests that teachers avoid competitive evaluations, which creates winners and losers, thereby sparking negative emotions in the latter. “It drives too many students into states of panic, anxiety, hopelessness and, in the end, boredom,” says Pekrun. “And boredom is the prime cause for failed education.”

Hayley Kaufman can be reached at