There's More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.
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(Photo: cogdog/Flickr)

(Photo: cogdog/Flickr)

As a kid, I was acutely aware of my strengths and my limitations. In the classroom, that meant avoiding math. I was afraid of numbers, and there's something downright ominous about a parabola.

Maybe I let my fear get the best of me: New research has found that roughly one in five people who identify as being bad at math actually scored in the top half of a given math test. One-third of those who claimed to be good at math, meanwhile, scored in that test’s bottom half. More significantly, it seems mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math.”

Ellen Peters, a psychology professor at The Ohio State University, lead a team of researchers that gave 130 students three separate numeric competency assessments: objective numeracy, or the ability to work with numbers in a traditional sense; subjective numeracy, a self-evaluation of math abilities; and symbolic-number mapping, the prediction and understanding of numeric relationships (think: a carpenter estimating how much wood is needed for a room). Participants were asked to evaluate, among other things, the attractiveness of several different bets, both risky and simple. They were also tested on their ability to remember numbers paired to different objects.

Peters’ research shows that some of us are having a tough time diagnosing our strengths and weaknesses, which may, in part, explain America’s slow academic decline into mathematical mediocrity.

"We've been interested in how math skills influence judgments and choices for a number of years now," Peters says. "What we've realized is that we have multiple, inter-related skills with numbers, and each skill has different influences on how we think and decide in our everyday lives."

Peters' results show that mathematical ability isn’t such a black-and-white quality. Those who scored higher in objective numeracy were most likely to use traditional calculations to determine the attractiveness of the different bets, while confident participants who tested highly in subjective numeracy were prone to finding all bets appealing. The people who scored higher in symbolic-number mapping used a rough estimation system in analyzing the different bets, producing fairly accurate results.

Peters also found that those with high opinions of their skills were more likely to stick with tougher test questions, while those who scored low in that department would more often give up on the problem.

As for the memory test, those who scored higher in subjective numeracy fared best—a result of greater guessing confidence.

Peters’ research shows that some of us are having a tough time diagnosing our strengths and weaknesses, which may, in part, explain America’s slow academic decline into mathematical mediocrity. Her study also shows that there could be more than one way to approach mathematical problems.

"The study points out that other non-traditional ways of assessing math skills—not just solving equations and memorizing figures, but also beliefs about number ability and number intuitions—appear to influence how everyday people go about making choices," Peters adds. "As a result, they suggest that we should assess math skills in ways that include them."

Still—I don’t really care if I’m some kind of unknown mathematical prodigy. Keep that parabola away from me.

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