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Study: Bad marks in maths undermine kids' self esteem

A study of 560 children by the University of Jyväskylä linked low scores to depression and anxiety. 

Kuvassa koululainen tekee matematiikan tehtäviä kotonaan.
Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

Poor marks in mathematics can weaken students' self-esteem, increasing the likelihood of issues in their personal lives, claims a study by the University of Jyväskylä.

The researchers found that awarding numerical grades in class makes children compare their own achievements with those of their classmates, which can lead to feelings of inferiority when compared to better-performing students.

Based on the research results, better marks in maths are reflected in higher self-esteem for both girls and boys. Higher marks in 5th grade correlated with stronger self-esteem in 6th grade, the researchers claimed, based on observations of around 560 children aged 10–13 in 4th to 7th grade.

"Lower marks, in turn, lower self-esteem in both girls and boys. They are more susceptible to feeling that they are worse than their peers," said Riitta-Leena Metsäpelto from the University of Jyväskylä's Department of Teacher Education.

The researchers used data gathered from the University’s "First Steps" study, taking into account teachers' assessments of students' emotional health and interpersonal relationships, awarded grades in maths and their first language, as well as students' own assessments of their self-esteem.

Numbers becoming the norm

The study results come as Finnish schools prepare to reintroduce numerical marks as standard, after they were encouraged to scrap them in favour of written or oral feedback.

From this autumn, numerical marks must be introduced in the 4th grade at the latest. Previously in 1st to 7th grade, municipalities have been allowed to choose to assess pupils either with marks or with feedback from teachers.

The University of Jyväskylä research group say it’s important that oral feedback is still given orally, as well as by awarding marks.

“It is important for the teacher to guide the children to notice the development of their own knowledge and skills, and to experience satisfaction in that rather than comparing themselves to others,” said Metsäpelto.

A study plan for everyone

Maths teacher Janne Venho is familiar with the debate around giving students marks.

"Pupils' 'fear' of school grades in general is that they end up being defined by them. This may be particularly apparent in mathematics," he said.

According to Venho, the best way to support students' self-esteem is to give them tasks according to their own level.

"Students would have their own tasks and projects to move forward with," he explained.

"It would give them a taste of success and thereby strengthen their self-esteem. In addition, comparing themselves with others would become more difficult."

Finding a compromise

In practice, teachers like Venho could face a heavy workload if asked to produce an individual study programme for every student.

In Viljakkala Comprehensive School, where Venho teaches, end-of-academic- year reports have been replaced by an assessment discussion, which both the student and their parent or guardian attend. Venho says he’s noticed that both adults and schoolchildren often want numerical assessments of a student’s performance.

!It looks like both are necessary," he said. "There is a place for both continuous and numerical assessment."

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