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Student Happiness Overrated?

I always liked math - I was even on the math team in high school (although only for the cookies!), but I admit to having tortured geometry and trig teachers with the ever popular question:

"What does this have to do with real life?"

As a student I felt that the classes I took should be relevant to life. And I really appreciated teachers that made the materials engaging and fun. But did any of this really make my education better??

A recent study compared 8th grade math students across the world and found that countries that ranked in the top 10 in terms of math enjoyment all scored below average in math skills, while countries that ranked in the bottom 10 on the enjoyment level all excelled in skill level.

Read the above paragraph again: the study found that across countries math enjoyment is inversely related to performance.

"Countries with more confident students who enjoy the subject matter - and with teachers who strive to make mathematics relevant to students' daily lives - do not do as well as countries that rank lower on the indices of confidence, enjoyment, and relevance" (page 14 of the study).

The study (How Well Are American Students Learning?) was done by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy and analyzed data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics - a test taken by 4th and 8th graders across the world. Students answered math questions and rated their enjoyment of math, level of confidence, etc.

The authors point out that within a given country, the students with more confidence tend to outscore those with low confidence. They also point out that this study does not give cause and effect - nevertheless, it raises some interesting questions. Not least of which is:

Is it more important in the long run that students have a positive educational experience or that they learn the material???

Feel free to share your opinion.


  1. Check out the AP story at

  2. So in addition to learning math, the depressed students learned another important lesson -- that life is hard :-)
    -- a recovering calculus teacher

  3. "Is it more important in the long run that students have a positive educational experience or that they learn the material???"

    This question may be a tad short sighted. It is a common mistake to equate educational assessment results with actual learning. (I do not fault you at all for making this mistake. I have seen this mistake occur in even education theory papers, unfortunetly.) The question might be more accurately phrased as, "Is it more important in the long run that students have a positive educational experience or that they [score highly/well on standardized tests]?" I could also insert, "recieve high grades from their teachers (who might similar give high grades to a popular but dim-witted football star)".

    Assessment in education is a rather tricky business. In fact, the assessment of cognitive attributes in general is complex enough to warrant its own psychological discipline: psychometry.

    Beyond the problems with assessment, there is also a benefit to having what you call a "positive educational experience" (though I won't get into trying to define what that is). Beyond anything else, proper motivation is likely the greatest determination of the potential success of a student, with regards to some academic discipline (forgive me for this uncited claim. If necessary, takes this as a "likelyhood".). Even if a student does "well" by the standards of grades and standardized tests, these factors mean nothing if the student is uninterested in what he supposedly learned to the point that he literally "forgets" it, uninterested in developing further outside the classroom, and/or chooses to stay away from careers in math and science (or any other discipline) because of his experience. I often remark to my peers (in physics) that the difference between us and the general populace is not so much that we are interested in analyzing physics problems, but that we have managed to maintain our natural curiosity, despite the best efforts of our teachers.

    Stated a different way, I can sum up my entire post with a single (yet admittedly facetious) question. If the student never learns how to learn except when forced to, then what has the student really learned beyond how to please his teachers?


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