Want more kids to take calculus? Convince mom first
A new study showed a simple intervention with parents led high schoolers to take more math and science classes.
July 13th, 2012
03:40 PM ET

Want more kids to take calculus? Convince mom first

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - Math and science educators across the country spend their summers learning how to make calculus more engaging and biology more relevant, but there's a problem: What if high schoolers never even signed up for those classes?

What if a tough ninth grade algebra class meant they hopped off the high-tech train, and couldn't find a way back on later? What if nobody answered when kids asked, "But I'm not going to be a chemist - why do I need this?"

For all the reasons teens find to stop taking math, science and technology classes, a study published online in the journal "Psychological Science" found a relatively simple way to make them continue: Convince their parents first.

The study, “Helping Parents to Motivate Adolescents in Mathematics and Science: An Experimental Test of a Utility-Value Intervention,” showed a simple intervention with parents led students to take, on average, one additional semester of math and science in their last two years of high school.

"These are the critical years in which mathematics and science courses are elective, and our results indicate that parents can become more influential in their children’s academic choices if given the proper support," the study says.

How simple was that support? Just a couple of brochures, a web site and a little guidance about how to use the information.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and James Madison University mailed parents of 10th graders a glossy, 16-page, photo-filled booklet touting math and science education. The brochures offered up talking points to parents about how to discuss science and math classes with their kids, and examples of how those subjects might be relevant to their lives now or when they're considering careers. If parents were convinced of the value of science and math for their kids, researchers thought moms and dads could convey that utility value to teens.

They followed up with another brochure while the kids were in 11th grade and included links to a website that offered more detailed information about science and tech careers. To assure parents paid attention, they asked parents to evaluate the website. A control group of parents and kids received none of the information.

Researchers thought they might see an increase in conversations between parents and kids about math and science. They didn't expect how much parents used the guidance - or how much of an impact they could have on their kids' class choices. Seventy-five percent of kids said they'd seen the brochures or the website sent to their parents.

“I think we underestimated how much parents would welcome this kind of help,” said Judith Harackiewicz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor and author of the study. “To encourage your kids to do something you didn’t do is particularly challenging. Even parents who, themselves, went far in education still don’t appreciate what their kids need to know today and might not have a good enough understanding of it."

Parents' reactions were different: Some said it was nothing new - they were already hearing it from their kids' schools and talking about it at home. Some just left the brochures where kids could find them. Some parents and kids went over the website together.

"I think the real potential is for families with fewer resources. It helped everybody because it was more tailored to parents than the stuff that usually comes home," Harackiewicz said.

“It could have worked differently in each family, but it worked."

Turns out it worked especially well with mothers. Moms were more likely to open the mail, read the brochures and talk about it with their kids, Harackiewicz said, especially because the sample included several families where kids lived with moms and without dads.

Fathers responded well to the website, Harackiewicz said, and when they got involved, they had a big impact - especially on their daughters.

There are some limitations to the study. All the families involved have participated in the longitudinal Wisconsin Study of Families and Work since the early 1990s, so the mailings came from a known source - not from companies selling flash cards or even school leaders putting notes in kids backpacks. The 181-family sample is a good representation of the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and educational diversity in Wisconsin, but not representative of the United States’ racial and ethnic makeup.

So there's plenty more to learn, perhaps studying kids and parents in earlier grades. Harackiewicz said they’re seeking partner schools that might reveal how more diverse students and families respond.

But, any school could try it.

“I think this could be easily implemented,” Harackiewicz said. "It shouldn’t be junk mail. If I, as a parent, got something from the principal of the school my kids were in, I would think, ‘I need to look at this.’

"We gave parents something they could use. It wasn’t too much, we just planted a seed. One conversation might have made a difference."

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Filed under: High school • Practice • Research • STEM
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Megamimi

    There was an implicit expectation that I and my brothers take every science and mathematics course our little high school offered. In addition, we knew that we would take the two years of Latin and the two available years of Spanish, no questions asked. So, at the end of our five years in high school ( the eighth grade being considered high school at that time), we had completed two years of algebra, a year of geometry, a year of trigonometry and a year of calculus. We had earth science, biology, chemistry and physics under our belts if not in our minds. In addition, we and every student in our school had studied a year of our state history as mandated by law, a year of American history, a year of world history and a year of U.S. government. Everyone took English every year, whether you were college bound or looking to enter the work force or the military.

    It was indeed our parents' expectations that had been firmly implanted in our little heads from a very young age that we would take those hard subjects, that we would study enough to pass them and that we would go to college that kept us focused. And no, college was not an easy thing for my family to afford. Each of us children worked from a very early age to help save the money necessary to pay for our education. Between that saved money, the funds which our parents' could afford, and summer jobs somehow we made it through.

    Children will work hard to live up to expectations (or down to them as the case may be). Our parents set goals for us that were a stretch but still commensurate with our abilities and for the most part we rose to the occasion, grumbling for sure. Neither my brothers or I are scientists or mathematicians, however I believe our early experiences with math and the sciences helped us grow intellectually and personally by causing us to think analytically.

    July 26, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  2. John Huskey

    Besides the monetary rewards associated with higher education, students should be encouraged to study calculus and related math courses for the discipline of thought and elegance of using logical tools in every day life that familiarity with calculus and related studies brings.

    July 16, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Semantics101

      I was and still intend on being a Engineer major. Calculus is a math that is intended for physics and could be used in other subjects if applied correctly.

      Calculus is a skill that I needed to understand. The problem is the teachers teach out of the book, cram as much material in as they can because of the status quo and the student rarely retain what it's intended for.

      If Calculus were tought more slowly and applied we would begain to see how it can be used. Then it could be used to advance other subjects. Until that happens it's a waste of time because it's all theroretical and when you're learning several different subjects you don't take theroies into consideration. A student is only going to remember chapter to chapter just to get it over with.

      July 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
      • Andrew

        As a physics major with a disdain for doing math, it's not really about doing it slowly, it's about the fact that it's a difficult subject. The real key to doing calc really is just practice practice and practice, it is a skill that can't be cultivated without large amounts of effort.

        Also, there's a lack of proofs that I find annoying. Most students are not challenged to come up with their own proofs, and there's no better way to show you understand a concept in mathematics than if you're capable of demonstrating the proof. Most math teachers don't come from a math background however, and over half of all high school math teachers in the US haven't had beyond first year introductory calculus. The teachers teach from the book because that's all they understand. After all, if you've got your PHD in math, teaching high school classes is likely only something you'd do after you retire.

        July 24, 2012 at 10:09 pm |

    After last year's school union controversy in Wisconsin we now have teachers engaged in doing their jobs. This message should have been getting out all along at parent teacher conferences and any time a teacher suspects a student isn't motivated. The parents share in the execution of educational ideals, but the classroom is where issues surface for observation. Thank you Governor Walker.

    To flamespeak I say that if you allow your kids to stagnate in grade and high school, then nothing will change when you send them off to college. The difference will be that you have wasted your own, rather than taxpayer money. Lifelong educational habits start young and make the difference between union and professional jobs. When in charge, take charge. Governor Walker stands at the threshhold of defining Wisconsin as a blue-collar state or technology corridor. You can choose to help him starting with your own kids.

    July 16, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  4. Flamespeak

    "Want more kids to take Calculus?"

    No. Why would I want them to?

    Odds are extremely high if they go to college that will require the stufy of Calculus, it will be required for them to take the classes at the college despite them taking it in grade school anyway.

    But more importantly, I would much, much rather a greater emphasis be placed on the basics of education in grade school to better prepare them for life outside of the school.

    July 16, 2012 at 5:09 am |
    • Flamespeak


      Me typed good

      July 16, 2012 at 5:33 am |
    • LuckyZapper

      Uh, that's why they created the Advanced Placement system, so that kids can get college credits so that they can skip those classes in college. Of course, what score one must get on the AP exam to be eligible to skip the class depends on the college.

      Most colleges, at least the higher ones, want to see that kids have taken at least one calculus class anyway.

      I do agree that grade school should prepare kids for the future, something that has been so far limited to private/prep schools. The primary goal of the majority of high schools has been for every student to get a high school diploma and... that's pretty much it.

      July 16, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • IHateLies

      So in other words, let's dumb down the expected education of future generations so that they have :
      1. No motivation to advanced education.
      2. Become incapable of competing at highly skilled occupations.

      Instead of outsourcing jobs to foreign countries, we will have to insource jobs here and attract outsiders to work here.

      So let's encourage a continued downward spiral.

      July 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Amy Waldhauer

      Flamespeak, if your kids don't take math in junior or senior year, they will have to take remedial classes to get them back up to the level where they can take calculus. Studies have shown that the more math a graduate has taken, the higher their beginning salary.

      My son took four years of math, four years of science, four years of english, four years of history and four years of a foreign langauge. That's because he was planning to go to college and waned to be prepared.

      July 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
      • Flamespeak

        I am all for learning a subject that has applicable uses, however, for the vast, vast, VAST majority of majors and careers out there Calculus is not used one flipping lick. I am against something being touted as a great subject to learn with no tangible benefit for the darn near 100% of the students out there. Should it be offered? I don't see why it should not be, but I don't see the reason to promote it when odds are high as all hades that the student will never need it outside a classroom.

        Oh, and on the topic of outsourcing jobs to other nations as was mentioned earlier, just what jobs being outsourced to other nations require an understanding of Calculus and if those that are being outsourced to other nations DO require an understanding of Calculus, is it because they can't find talent in the USA to perform those duties or is it because they don't want to pay a proper wage for people with those talents?

        July 19, 2012 at 12:07 am |