What is it about?

Psychological theories predict that people make a decision in favor of an option – like choosing a certain career – when they feel that they can succeed and when they value the option highly. In our research, we showed that when students value math as a school subject because they enjoy it, they are more likely to aspire to a career in which math plays an important role. Interestingly, this was only the case for students who feel they are competent in math: For them, enjoying math meant that they aspired to careers in which math is important. On the other hand, when students did not feel competent, whether or not they enjoyed math was irrelevant to their aspirations. Importantly, we made sure to compare students who are similar in their academic achievement and family background – which means that these factors do not explain this phenomenon.

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Why is it important?

Oftentimes, we think of different motivations like feeling competent at something and enjoying it as simply adding up to a total “amount” of motivation to pursue a given option (e.g., a career in math). However, our research shows that this is not the case – when students did not feel competent in math, it did not matter how much they enjoyed it. On the other hand, for students who felt highly competent, enjoyment mattered a lot. This highlights how our decisions are always formed in context – for some students, a motivation like enjoying math can add to the total motivation to pursue a career in which math is important. For others, such a motivation is irrelevant and does not add to their career aspirations. When we talk to young people about their aspirations and career decisions, we should therefore pay attention to such nuances. If we want to encourage students who feel competent in math to go into science, technology, engineering and math, we should particularly ensure that engaging with math is enjoyable for them.

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This page is a summary of: Feeling joy × feeling competent: Predicting math-related occupational aspirations from math grades, gender, and parents’ occupational background via motivational beliefs., Journal of Educational Psychology, May 2024, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/edu0000872.
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