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Students’ self-perceptions of what they are good at and how good they are at different types of tasks predict their future school performance and choices. For example, students who perceive themselves to be good at math are more likely to take math classes, get good grades in math, and enroll in higher-level math classes as they progress through their educational careers compared to students who doubt their mathematical abilities or abilities.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California, Irvine, and the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany conducted a first-of-its-kind study to directly chart changes in students‘ use of dimensional comparisons (eg, “How good am I at math compared to English?”) in self-reported math and verbal abilities (math and verbal self-concepts) from grades 1 to 12. The study was published by Child development.

“Our study examined whether there are age-related changes in students’ use of size comparisons and whether these changes can explain the increasing differentiation of students’ math and verbal self-concepts over time,” said Shirui Wang, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Examining these questions is important because it clarifies the role of size comparison in shaping students’ self-esteem at different stages of their educational careers, and because size comparison can significantly influence students’ future choices of education and field of specialization.”

Data were used from the Childhood and Beyond Study, an existing longitudinal study of the effects of development and socialization on children’s achievement, motivation, and behavior beginning in grades K-3. The data were collected between 1987 and 1999, and the children were first observed for three consecutive years, and then, after a three-year gap, for three more consecutive years. The final sample included 1069 children (gender was almost perfectly balanced). The sample consisted primarily of European Americans (91%) and included only small minorities of African Americans (1%), Asian Americans (5%), Native Americans (less than 1%), and Hispanics (less than 1%). Children visited ten schools primary schools in four middle-class school districts in the suburbs of a large city in the midwestern United States. Participating families were generally middle- or working-class, two-parent (90% two-parent).

The study asked students to rate their math and verbal abilities over time in a variety of ways:

  • Without clear instructions about which type of comparison to use, such as “How good are you at math [reading]”
  • Based on comparisons of dimensions such as: “How good you are at math [reading]compared to other activities and subjects?” and/or
  • Based on social comparisons with peers, for example, “If you ranked all the students from the best to the worst in math [reading]where are you?”

By comparing students’ responses to these items, the study provided direct evidence that students’ use of size comparisons in their self-assessment of ability increased over time. Specifically, this study found that the correlation between self-concepts of math and language ability decreased over time when students were asked to rate their ability based on dimensional comparisons. However, the correlation between math self-concepts and language ability remained consistently positive when students were asked to rate their ability based on social comparisons. These findings suggest that students’ use of size comparisons plays a role in explaining the age-related reversal in correlations between students’ math and verbal self-concepts in adolescence that has been shown in previous meta-analyses.

In other words, this study demonstrates that students increasingly begin to compare dimensions to determine whether they are either a “mathematician” or a “reader” as they progress through K-12 education. This tendency may explain why some students form a specialized academic identity during high school. This phenomenon likely plays a large role in students’ decisions about which classes to enroll in and which activities to invest time and effort into, with long-term consequences for their education and careers.

The author team notes several limitations of the study. First, each of the measures used to operationalize dimensional and social comparison processes was assessed with a single item, which may limit the content validity and reliability of these measures, although the items were tested by correlating them with teacher ratings of math and reading ability. Second, size comparison items asked students to compare their math or verbal ability with “other subjects.”

Accordingly, when students answer these questions, they may be thinking about subjects other than math and language; for example, subjects such as social studies, physical education and science. Finally, the sample in the data consists primarily of white and lower-middle to middle class data collected between 1987 and 1996. Patterns of development may have changed in different periods of time, and the role of size comparison may depend on socioeconomic, cultural, or racial influences that cannot be considered with this date. Similar longitudinal studies with more diverse samples are needed.

“It seems that students develop a tendency to think of themselves as a ‘reader’ or a ‘math person,’ depending on which subject they are better at. This trend can have a dark side because students may drop subjects they perceive as their relative weaknesses, even if they are actually quite good at those subjects compared to other students, Wang continued.

“Unfortunately, we still know very little about whether and how contextual factors, such as the school environment, may influence this trend. More research on this topic is needed to potentially help ensure that students are not shying away from specific careers due to inaccurate self-assessment.”

Research shows how students’ math and science identities affect college and career outcomes

Additional information:
Developmental changes in students’ use of size comparisons to form self-concepts of ability in math and verbal domains, Child development (2022). DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13856

Citation: Students compare their math and reading performance to determine whether they are “mathematicians” or “readers” (2022, October 12) Retrieved October 12, 2022, from 2022-10-students-math-person.html

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