Belief in one’s abilities early in life predicts math, reading achievement later on

ANN ARBOR--When kids believe they can succeed in math and reading, it increases their chances later to achieve high test scores in those same subjects, a new study found.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Independent Scholar used two U.S. data sets--with one being a nationally represented study--and one U.K. data set to measure self-concept and standardized assessments of early and later academic achievement.

Self-concept is how students perceive their capabilities to succeed on academic tasks.

The data involved youth ages 5 to 18--the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (13,901 British children), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (1,354 American children) and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics-Child Development Supplement (237 American children).

The study considered children’s earlier achievement and their characteristics and backgrounds, including birth weight, race/ethnicity, gender, age and their mother’s education.

The researchers found that children’s self-concept of their ability in math predicted later math achievement, while their self concept of their ability in reading predicted later reading achievement.

The finding suggests that the links between self-concept of ability and later achievement are specific to domains; that is, there is a link from students’ self-concept about reading to reading achievement, and from students’ self-concept about math to math achievement.

"It is not unusual to see standardized measures of achievement or cognition predict to achievement later in schooling, but finding a relation between more of a motivational measure like self-concept of ability shows that there is more to understanding how children achieve than just examining prior performance," said study co-author Pamela Davis-Kean, U-M professor of psychology and research professor at the Institute for Social Research.

The research also showed that success was not limited to students who perform at the top levels.

"It extends to students with different levels of achievement in math and reading," said Maria Ines Susperreguy, assistant professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, who led the study. "Even the lowest-performing students who had a more positive view of their math and reading abilities had higher levels of achievement in math and reading."

Researchers said they did not know what parents or students did to have create these beliefs, but it’s an issue that will be investigated further.

The study’s other authors were Kathryn Duckworth of Independent Scholar and U-M’s Meichu Chen. They were part of the Consortium of the Analyses of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood, which was funded by the National Science Foundation to bring together interdisciplinary researchers to examine important developmental research questions using rigorous methods in replicated studies.

The findings appear in the current issue of Child Development.