BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Simply boosting teenagers' self-esteem when
they haven't earned it can be harmful, according to a University at
Buffalo researcher who has found a link between overconfidence and
lower mathematics achievement in 34 countries.
"In all 34 countries studied, overconfident students were less
likely to have above average math scores, and under-confident
students were more likely to have above average math scores," says
UB professor of learning and instruction Ming Ming Chiu, the lead
author of an international study that examined this connection and
offers recommendations for parents and teachers.
According to the study, students who can accurately gauge their
strengths and weaknesses are more likely to recognize how much more
work and help they need to achieve their goals. On the other hand,
"students who overestimate their mathematics skills often do too
little homework, do not ask for help and ultimately perform poorly
on both school tests," Chiu says.
The study, "Relations of mathematics self-concept and its
calibration with mathematics achievement: Cultural differences
among fifteen-year-olds in 34 countries," was the first large-scale
international study of almost 90,000 students' overconfidence and
math levels (including nearly 4,000 U.S. students). It was
co-written by Robert Klassen, associate professor at the University
of Alberta's Department of Educational Psychology, and is published
in the winter edition of the professional educators' journal
Learning and Instruction.
The researchers used data from the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student
In the study, Chiu and Klassen found large differences in
confidence levels and mathematics levels across countries.
Brazilian students showed the most overconfidence (88 percent) and
the lowest math score (333). In contrast, only 16 percent of South
Korean students were overconfident, and they had the third highest
math score (548). In comparison, 57 percent of U.S. students were
overconfident, and they scored somewhat below average (493; average
The study is particularly important because mathematics is a
"gateway to many professions (for example, business and
engineering) and critical to daily financial decisions, according
to Chiu. "Understanding numbers is an absolute must for many
high-paying jobs and making smart money decisions," he says.
The two researchers recommend that parents and teachers help
their children and students become appropriately confident and
learn vital mathematics ideas and skills by doing the
• Check Math Answers. Unlike other subjects,
mathematics allows students to put their answer back into the
original problem to see if a result makes sense. If a question
asks, "How much money do Jack and Jill have if they each owe ten
dollars?" and a student's computation yields 100, clearly the
answer is wrong and can easily be checked. These checks help
students test the validity of their answers and to develop an
appropriate level of self-confidence, Chiu says.
• Apply Math to the Real World. Ask students to
apply the ideas they've learned that day to the world around them.
For example, "If I know the length of the shadow of my house and
its angle with the sun, I can figure out how tall it is." These
applications help students recognize how well they understand the
math, Chiu says.
• Compare With Peers. Students should use classmates
as a ruler to measure their own strengths and weaknesses, Chiu
says. ("Do I understand and solve mathematics problems as well as
• Review Past Homework and Tests. Examining homework
and tests, especially wrong answers, helps anchor student
confidence to a suitable level and prevents overconfidence.
"Boys and richer students are more likely than other students to
overestimate their mathematics abilities," says Chiu. "Thus, they
should be especially encouraged to follow the above tips."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, a flagship institution in the State University
of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus.
UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests
through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional
degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a
member of the Association of American Universities.