The development of mathematical cognition and motivation
Mathematical skills are critical for academic and career success, and it is therefore vital to understand how cognitive and motivational processes work together to influence children’s developmental trajectories in math. In this talk, I will examine cognitive and motivational processes that lead to individual differences in mathematical development, using a combination of longitudinal and experimental methods in preschool and early elementary school students. Focusing first on cognitive processes, I ask how and why spatial skills relate to numerical development. I provide evidence that number line estimation is a key mediator of this relation, and in a 2-year longitudinal study, show that mental transformation skill is a specific predictor of growth in number line estimation skill, over and above other spatial skills. Further, in the challenging domain of fraction learning, I use experimental training studies to show that number line estimation is not only correlated with children’s fraction magnitude knowledge, but causes improvements in fraction magnitude knowledge even on an untrained transfer task. Focusing on motivational processes, I show that young children already perceive math as involving more fixed ability than verbal skills, making math a special challenge in terms of academic motivation. Finally, in a 6-month longitudinal study, I provide evidence that math achievement, math anxiety, and growth mindsets are reciprocally related over time, demonstrating early-developing relations between mathematical cognition and motivation. Together, these results elucidate specific processes that lead to individual differences in early mathematical development, and highlight the importance of improving both cognitive skills and motivation for setting children onto a positive trajectory in math. I will conclude by discussing ongoing and future research examining the impact of parent-child interactions on children’s mathematical cognition and motivation.