Habits of America’s Top Math Students Provide Clues to Success

Posted By Terri Williams on July 20, 2017 at 7:35 am
Habits of America’s Top Math Students Provide Clues to Success

Math might not be the favorite academic subject of many high school students – and it shows: U.S. students fail to impress in math and science (and that’s putting it lightly) on several international tests. However, some students excel in math, and an analysis of the preferences and habits of top math students might provide clues to their success.

Moody’s Mega Math Challenge is an annual national math competition in which high school juniors and seniors apply mathematical concepts to real-world problems. But there’s a catch: after a team logs on to a designated website to receive its problem, it only has 14 hours to solve it – without any assistance from coaches or anyone outside of the two- to three-person team. The top six teams share scholarships that range from $5,000 to $20,000.

This year, Moody’s and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics surveyed the participants on a variety of topics. Below are selected excerpts:

How much time do you spend studying?

47% Spend 11+ hours a week
29% Spend 6-10 hours a week
84% I do homework alone in a room


What contributed the most to your interest in math?

51% I’m naturally interested
25% I credit a good teacher
11% I’m motivated by a better college or career possibility


What is the best way to learn math?

64% Understanding the underlying concepts behind the formulas
23% Practice solving math problems


In addition, 33% of respondents say they keep working at a math problem until they come up with an answer, while the rest reach out to a teacher, the internet, or a friend.

These responses are important, because they provide clues to the behaviors and attitudes of top math students – information that could help reverse the country’s dismal placement on international math tests. For example:

  • In the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, the U.S. high school students placed 38th in math, out of 71 countries.
  • In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, 4th graders placed 11th in math out of 48 countries. Among 8th grade students, the U.S. was 8th in both math, out of 37 countries.

Math proficiency ratings from the National Assessment of Education Progress reveal math proficiency levels among U.S. students as follows:

Proficient or advanced Grade level
40% 4th grade students
33% 8th grade students
25% 12th grade students


Why math performance matters

Math performance can be a deciding factor among students choosing college majors and careers. For example, a study by researchers at Colorado State reveals that Calculus I stops women students from pursuing STEM careers. When men and women students perform poorly in Calculus I, women are more likely to transfer out of STEM programs. Ironically, women who perform better than their male counterparts are still more likely to change majors. (Researchers at Washington State University found that men students tend to overestimate their math abilities, so they tend to persist regardless of their grades in this area.)

Some of the issues with math may be explained by a study that found STEM college students who learn by example may lack a key attribute: They tend to memorize the examples presented in class instead of learning the underlying principles. Remember: 68% of the top math students responding to the Moody’s Mega Math Challenge survey thought understanding the underlying concepts behind the formulas is the best way to learn math.

According to Farzin Farzad, M.Ed., Sr. Instructional Support Labs Director at Mountain View College in Dallas, “Many students study terms and concepts within the context in which they are presented, and don’t always acquire a deep understanding of the material.” Farzad tells GoodCall®, “Without comprehensive knowledge of the material, students struggle when asked to apply concepts learned in different contexts.”

And, Farzad can also confirm the importance of developing regular study habits. Almost half of the surveyed students study more than 11 hours a week – and the vast majority do homework alone, which reduces the potential for distractions. “One could predict that if students study on a daily basis – before and after class – they may gain a deeper understanding of the subject and may be able to decipher a better understanding out of altered context questions,” Farzad explains.

Why not celebrate top math students?

There are other issues that also have to be addressed to increase the numbers of top math students – or at least proficient ones. According to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, “More students will be interested in math if they are rewarded.”  He explains, “Our schools are wonderful for providing accolades and financial support to our best athletes – but the best and brightest in math and STEM are only cursorily acknowledged for their talents.”

And Zandi’s right: For example, National Signing Day is an annual, day-long media circus in which colleges select high school football players. However, there’s no hoopla, no celebration, no media coverage, and no live blog when colleges offer scholarships to STEM students. There are no weekly pep rallies for top math students or others competing in academic competitions, and no Friday Night Lights. And, when these kids get to college, their student fees are often used to subsidize athletic programs, not scholar bowls.

“There is a growing shortage of people with strong math and STEM skills,” Zandi says. “Given the rapid pace of technological change and globalization of the economy, demand for these skills is sure to remain very strong for the foreseeable future.” And Moody warns, “Unless more students graduate with math and STEM skills, the economy’s growth will be hamstrung.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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