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Building Math Confidence: It Takes Math to Make a STEM Career

Building Math Confidence: It Takes Math to Make a STEM Career

By Eloy Ortiz, MURP | October 4, 2016
Research Associate, ETR

Our nation has a vital interest in building a better pipeline to careers in STEM. However, females, Blacks and Latinos are substantially underrepresented in tech professions. ETR has had a longstanding commitment to exploring ways to boost the presence of women and underrepresented minorities in the tech world. A number of our research projects explore strategies to support a more diverse presence in the field.

Our Math Pathways project seeks to provide some pieces in the puzzle of identifying the factors that will help Latino students succeed in math. We know it’s important to build and sustain math confidence early in children’s education. Most students who decide to focus on STEM studies make that choice during high school, and increasingly, STEM competence is seen as a necessary emphasis for all students, from pre-K through grade 12.

In Math Pathways, we took a look at the role of relationships in children’s development of math skills and attitudes. Our work examined an 18-month period spanning the critical transition from elementary to middle school. We surveyed mother-child pairs in a rural, predominantly Latino farming community. We already knew that, as a group, Latino students tend to underperform in math. We wanted to understand what influenced changes in their performance, attitudes and perceived competence from fifth to seventh grade. We also wanted to see how mothers influenced their children in these matters and viceversa.

Background: What’s With That Underrepresentation in STEM?

To this point, research looking at STEM education often focuses on gender differences. Findings in these studies may also illuminate issues affecting underrepresented minorities. We know that the gender gap in confidence starts young—in early elementary school—and widens as students age. But in terms of math performance, boys and girls perform similarly across all grades.

A study published recently in PLOS ONE focused on women who begin college with an interest in a STEM major and then leave the major. One of the critical steps in any STEM career is mastery of calculus. Women are 1.5 times more likely than men to shift away from a STEM emphasis after Calculus 1. Many report they do not feel prepared to continue to Calculus 2. But the study findings suggest it’s a lack of math confidence, not a lack of ability that discourages women. Similar issues have been identified among underrepresented minorities who enter college as STEM majors but do not complete those degrees.

The Math Pathways Study

Between 2014 and 2016, we surveyed 300 Latino/a Mother-Child Pairs. (We’ve written elsewhere about the strategies we developed to keep Latina mothers involved in longitudinal research. Our retention rate in this study was over 90%.) Surveys were completed at four time points—spring of fifth grade, fall of sixth, spring of sixth and fall of seventh.

We asked about the children’s interest in math, and about how confident the children were in math performance. We also asked how involved mothers were in supporting their child’s interest and performance in math at home.

While there is great diversity in the Latino population, this study was focused on second-generation Latino students whose families originated in Mexico. Ninety-two percent of our child participants were born in the United States; 70% of the mothers were born in Mexico. Forty-seven percent of the mothers had less than a high school education. Those who were educated in Mexico had learned different systems for doing math than those being used in their children’s schools. The mothers often reported finding it difficult to support their children in math in the home.

Preliminary Findings

Our analyses show a substantial drop in math interest among both boys and girls from the end of fifth to the end of sixth grade. There was a drop in math confidence among girls but not boys. Mothers believed their children to be more interested in and more confident about math than the children reported being. Mothers also reported greater involvement with their children’s math at home than the children did. When mothers were more involved in their child’s math at home, students’ math confidence increased from fifth to sixth grade. 

Students who were the most confident in math in fifth grade had the smallest declines in math interest over time. Mothers’ involvement also protected children from declines in math performance, especially if the student was less interested in math. In addition, when mothers believed that boys are better than girls in math, their involvement in their daughter’s math homework declined from fifth to sixth grade.

The take-away? Mothers have a more positive view of their children’s experience with math than the children do. But there may be ways to boost children’s math confidence, increase their interest in math and keep parents involved. Mothers’ support made a difference in children’s math confidence, but their beliefs about their child’s math ability influenced how involved they were.

These are important findings that can be used to identify strategies to boost children’s math confidence. The higher students’ math confidence as they enter college, the greater their chances of success in pursuing STEM majors. And students who don’t have the necessary math confidence when they begin college face a challenging period of catch-up that throws off the timing and sequence of their coursework. Few students are able to overcome these obstacles.

Next Steps

We’ll be continuing our data analyses to determine how students are changing and what is influencing these changes.

Based on our findings, here are three recommendations for teachers, schools and communities:

  1. To maintain students’ confidence, reinforce their natural interest in math.
  2. Remind parents how important their involvement is, particularly if their child is less interested in math.
  3. Challenge gender stereotypes about who is good at math.


Eloy Ortiz, MURP, is a Research Associate at ETR. He has been the research coordinator for multiple projects focused on increasing the computer-science educational attainment of Latino/a youth in Santa Cruz County. He can be reached at

This research is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (1248598) to Jill Denner and Brett Laursen.

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