A classroom motivational exercise is most effective for children from families with low interest in mathematics

Photo: Anthony Albright. Creative Commons.

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Educational development researchers in Germany have found that a classroom exercise to improve 14-year-olds’ motivation in mathematics is most beneficial for students whose parents are less interested in the subject. Five months after the exercise, there was no average difference between students from different families in the extent to which they believed in the importance of mathematics for real life.

The researchers call this the “Robin Hood” effect: the exercise benefitted the less advantaged students more. They argue that this has important implications for how schools encourage students to be motivated about mathematics: parents should be engaged in the effort.

A large number of educational development studies have found that students from less well-off families show less motivation and achievement. But this study found that the degree to which a family is motivated to encourage mathematics is more significant than disadvantage per se.

This study, conducted in 2012-13, involved 1,916 14-year-olds from diverse economic backgrounds. They came from 82 classes in 25 German schools. Two motivational exercises were tested separately, both consisting of a 90-minute class. Both classes started the same way – a presentation of research findings about how effort leads to higher attainment, and then a presentation of how mathematics can be useful for future careers. Then one of two exercises followed. The first was a written exercise where the students were asked to write about how mathematics is relevant to their own lives. The second was rating a series of quotations on the same subject. Both types of class were followed by two more writing exercises, one and two weeks later, to consolidate the learning.

The impact on the students’ motivation was measured six weeks after the classes, and once again five months afterward.

The exercises increased students’ motivations five months later (how much they liked mathematics, how important they felt it was to them to do well in the subject, how valuable they thought it is and how hard they said they were working on it), with the quotation exercise showing a stronger result.

The key to the study, however, was to see whether the interventions had more impact on students from families that provided less motivation. The parent most involved in the child’s homework was asked to complete a questionnaire. (In about a quarter of cases, that meant both the mother and father answered the questionnaire together.)

The impacts were indeed greater in families where students got less support. Both interventions made a greater difference to students whose families had less general interest in and liking for mathematics, and whose families did not regard it as very useful or important.

The study is another illustration of how school and home experiences interact for learning.

Häfner I, Flunger B, Dicke A-L, Gaspard H, Brisson BM, Nagengast B & Trautwein U (2017), Robin Hood Effects on Motivation in Math: Family Interest Moderates the Effects of Relevance Interventions, Developmental Psychology