What Makes Someone 'a Math Person' or Not?

Researcher explores how a sense of belonging can influence underrepresented students learning mathematics

“Are you a math person?” That’s a question Dana Miller-Cotto, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Kent State's Department of Psychological Sciences, asked at the beginning of her presentation at the recent Research & Innovation Forum, sponsored by the university's Science of Learning Education (SOLE) Center and the Division of Research and Sponsored Programs (RASP).

She acknowledged that some people feel very strongly about math, and some may even feel anxiety about it. Miller-Cotto also asked how people feel about being “a math person” – or not. She asked forum attendees to recall when someone first referred to them as “a math person” – perhaps a teacher who recognized a talent in mathematics.

Teacher in classroom engaging with students.


‘A lot of work suggests that motivation is a predictor of math outcomes.’

Miller-Cotto’s research examines how someone’s feelings about math, specifically their feelings of “belonging to math,” can determine how far a student might go in pursuit of STEM learning and STEM careers, particularly with underrepresented students. “A sense of belonging is important,” she said. “It’s a significant predictor.”

Slide from Miller-Cotto's presentation describing why some people aren't "math people."


In her research, Miller-Cotto found that underrepresented minority (URM) students demonstrated a lower sense of math belonging relative to non-URM students. This lower sense of belonging is tied to their scores in math classes.

How to increase that sense of ‘belonging to math’

Miller-Cotto believes that URM students need to receive explicit or implicit messages about their math competence along with structural things from an early age. “Something we’ve been thinking about as it relates to math identity, what folks in math education have been doing instructionally and how we might adopt some of those strategies in psychology or educational psychology. And that might be useful for changing sense of belonging,” she said.

Elementary school students in a classroom.


“So, essentially, we wanted to know how math identity and sense of belonging might be related and how we can borrow some of that to alter instructional practices.”

Research and innovation

Miller-Cotto’s research was one of the topics presented at a recent Research and Innovation Forum sponsored by Kent State’s Science of Learning Education (SOLE) Center and Research and Sponsored Programs (RASP). RASP sponsors two Research and Innovation forums each year.

Kent State has earned the prestigious R1 designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. R1 status is the highest recognition that doctoral universities can receive, and Kent State is one of only five universities in Ohio to have earned it. This designation recognizes the high level of research activity on Kent State’s campuses.

POSTED: Sunday, February 19, 2023 03:12 PM
Updated: Tuesday, March 14, 2023 05:30 PM
Phil B. Soencksen