FEB 22, 2018 6:14 AM PST

Is It All About Attitude?

From a cartoon fish who advises to “just keep swimming” to posters that encourage us to “Keep Calm and Carry On” motivational sayings, quotes, posters and Internet memes are trying to insert a little positivity into our daily lives. As it turns out, a positive outlook can even change the way the brain works.

Motivating children to learn can be difficult, especially when it comes to finding just the right way to present new information so it’s not too difficult and engages the students. The goal is of course for students to achieve high marks and while education is a science, there is a part to be played by attitude, which is somewhat more subjective.

Researchers from Stanford University recently looked at a group of students to see if their outward attitude had any impact on the inner workings of the brain. The short answer? Yes, attitude matters very much, perhaps just as much as IQ numbers and test scores. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question though. If a student has a positive attitude toward a subject like math, which can be challenging for some, the student will generally do better, academically. But which came first? Is it the attitude going into a class that results in the grade or is it the enjoyment that comes after receiving a good grade?

To really know the answer to that, you have to look directly at the brain. The team at Stanford looked at test scores and attitudes of a group of 240 children, aged 7 to 10. Forty-seven of the children also underwent functional MRI scans (fMRI), so the scientists could see what was happening in the brain as the students solved some fundamental math problems. To no one’s surprise, the children who reported liking math did better on assessments and children who did not like math, scored lower on the same tests.

When the scans were analyzed, however, there was a much more significant finding. The students who had a positive attitude toward math had significantly more activity in the hippocampus of the brain. This region is responsible for processing learning and memory, and more activity means that more learning is happening. In this study, children’s attitudes toward math changed the way their brains worked while learning basic arithmetic

The study was small, and there was no mechanism to figure out exactly how much of the children’s performance on math assessments was related to their prior success in the subject or their attitude of positivity, but the results are still important for educators. Lang Chen, the lead author of the study, explained, "We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional. It's like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. Attitude is really important. Based on our data, the unique contribution of a positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ." While practicing multiplication tables and learning how to solve equations can be a rote task that has nothing to do with outlook, it seems that a little confidence and optimism when approaching a difficult subject can be just as important as all that practice. The video below features Kid President, and his advice on staying positive in school, check it out.

Sources: Stanford, Journal Psychological Science, Inc. Magazine, NBC News 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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