A Psychologist Has Figured Out How You Can Be Better at Math

Numeracy is tied up in self-esteem and motivation.

As you may remember from your own (in)glorious youth, most university students are required to take a statistics course even if they hate math and aren’t in a particularly numbers-heavy major.

Ellen Peters, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, heard this was driving a lot undergrads on her campus crazy. “A lot of the students are really threatened by it. They’re kind of afraid of it, they dread taking it,” she says. “If they do dread it, they can end up in a cycle of failure.”

Curious to see if she could make a positive change among math-phobic Buckeyes, Peters created an intervention that tested whether or not value affirmation could improve student’s comfort and ability with numbers, otherwise known as numerical literacy or numeracy.

The results, which were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, indicate that confidence and core values have a lot to do with learning the numbers.

See also: How to Crush Your Friends at Monopoly Using Math

Peters started studying numeracy formally about 12 years ago, but her interest in the topic started long before. Back in college, she noticed her math-loving friends approached problems differently than her more math-phobic friends. “I just thought it was so odd we made decisions really differently,” Peters recalled. While Peters thought a lot in terms of probabilities, she noticed others thought in terms of stories.

This wasn’t just in the classroom, either. Numeracy seemed to impact everyone’s real-world decision making, including managing health and wealth. But numerous studies show that only 10 percent of adults can understand complex numeric information. That’s why Peters’s new study focused on how to improve mathematical literacy.

Researchers have shown over and over again that self-perception and confidence play a key role in gaining numeracy. The thinking goes that if students are convinced they’ll fail and they do poorly on a homework assignment, that reinforces fears they’ll do poorly on a test, then a midterm, and eventually, the whole class.

To improve this, Peters says, “You want to get students to step back in a sense, to think more about what’s important to them in life so that ultimately you shore up their sense of self so they’re more resilient to threats that come in the classroom and the classroom materials.”

In the recent study, half of the students in a statistics course were randomly assigned to an intervention group where they were asked to rank six values (like their relationship with family and friends and their passion for government and politics) and write about why they were personally relevant. The other half of students, the control group, ranked those values, too, but focused on why those values might be important to others.

The researchers then analyzed the effect of self-reflection in the intervention group. They found that while those who thought about their reasons for being in the class — and how math aligned with their values — didn’t do better in terms of course grades, they did experience a small but significant uptick in their sense of their own abilities (called subjective numeracy). The researchers also tested the students and found that their actual mathematical abilities, called objective numeracy, did improve.

What’s more, Peters and her team found that the increase in objective and subjective numeracy seemed to have a real-world impact. The students who thought about their values made better financial and medical decisions later.

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