Thursday, October 19, 2006

Confidence is still k*e^y

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A recent study claims that students who enjoy math aren't very good at it:

The nations with the best scores have the least happy, least confident math students, says a study by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy.

Countries reporting higher levels of enjoyment and confidence among math students don't do as well in the subject, the study suggests. The results for the United States hover around the middle of the pack, both in terms of enjoyment and in test scores.

In essence, happiness is overrated, says study author Tom Loveless.

Personally, I neither enjoy variables (unless they spell out words) nor excel in math, but I'm still finding a very hard time buying this argument. It defeats all common sense to say that a student who doesn't believe in himself can outperform a student who loves the subject-- particularly if the subject is math, because math is the Devil.

Loveless states that those "colorful photos, charts and stories to please kids" found in American math textbooks are hurting our youth's chances to learn mathematical concepts, and they are a reason for why American math students are not on the same level as students from other countries who use books stuffed cover-to-cover with, I suppose, millions of equations. Like my college textbook, which worked so well for me.

In response to this study, we do need to ask, 'How was the data gathered?' What is the reason for such startling results?

His findings come from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a test of fourth-graders and eighth-graders across the globe. Along with answering math questions, students were asked whether they enjoyed math and whether they usually did well in it.

Yup, standardized tests. I get it now.

The problem here is that the test tries to answer two questions that are unrelated: what math skills does the student possess, and what is the student's interest in math overall?

Mathematical skill is dependent on previous courses the student may have taken, the quality of teachers at the schools the student attended, and the strength of examples found in the student's textbooks, among many other things. This dependency can be analyzed through the results of the test, because we have a dependent variable (student's ability to solve problems) and independent variables (efficiency of educational tools), as we've been analyzing for some time.

Where does a student's confidence in oneself and interest in a subject come from? If you enjoy math, it's not because of the multiplication tables you learned in 3rd grade; it's because of the math you currently have been studying. Enjoying a subject translates more or less to enjoying what you're doing, not what you may have learned prior.

If a student is currently learning a higher level of math than the test is standardized for (by grade level), it would be likely for the student to admit to (1) not doing very well in math and (2) not particularly liking math that much, while still nabbing a stellar grade on the test itself. Similarly, if a student is at a lower level of math, he would fail the test even though he may be a brilliant (and confident) student with the math skills he has previously been endowed.

Skill does not necessarily equate with interest, confidence, or outcome on a standardized test, and the study does not account for this.

And on the topic of math, I admit I have none of the above.

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