Written by Sirui Wan, University of Wisconsin-Madison


The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

As kids progress through school, they tend to increasingly perceive themselves as either a “math person” or a “language person,” even if they’re good at both, according to a recent study I led.

My colleagues and I were interested in why people pursue specific educational and career trajectories – like choosing a science, technology, engineering and mathematics major vs. a non-STEM major in college. We know that having a specific academic identity, like considering oneself a “math person,” is one of the reasons people choose a corresponding career path. My team wanted to find out when some kids start to lean toward identifying this way.

We focused on math and language arts because they are the most common subjects in the U.S. K-12 system; for example, the SAT has two main sections: English and math. There is also a gender stereotype that reading is for girls and math is for boys.

My team analyzed data involving 142 independent samples across the world, featuring almost 211,000 students from 16 countries and regions. This data includes self-reported confidence and interest in math and language arts from students in different grades.

Our research indicates an age-related change in kids’ academic identity formation.

We found that during primary school, students who reported high confidence and interest in language arts were also likely to report high confidence and interest in math. But as students progress though the school years, this pattern gradually changes. In high school, students who reported high confidence and interest in language arts reported lower confidence and interest, on average, in math, and vice versa.

In other words, students become more likely to think that they’re either a math person or a reading person as they progress through their school years.