Presidential Task Force on Mathematics and Science

In 2007, APA and the Society for Research in Child Development formed the Presidential Task Force on Mathematics and Science to examine the role of psychology in mathematics and science education. Appointed by the 2007 APA President Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD, the task force recognized that the field of psychology had a vital role to play in improving math and science education for all children in the United States.

This panel of scientific experts reviewed decades of research in the areas of child development, cognitive science, education research and assessment, and drafted a report summarizing their findings. Highlights of these findings explain how advances in understanding basic math and science cognition (or thinking), as well as research advances in social and motivational issues and assessment, offer new opportunities to help bridge the gap between basic research and classroom practice.

Four areas where psychology has provided important contributions to PK-12 mathematics and science education:

  1. Early conceptual understanding of mathematics.

  2. Conceptual understanding of science.

  3. Social and motivational involvement in mathematics and science.

  4. Assessment of learning in mathematics and science.

Early Understanding of Mathematics
  • Researchers have found that preschool children often have some idea of quantitative concepts like addition and subtraction, but it is not clear yet if this predicts later math achievement. 

  • Older children appear to have a harder time learning some math concepts than others; for example, fractions are particularly difficult, even when children already understand part-whole relationships. Small scale laboratory research shows promise in looking at alternative teaching strategies to address this, but additional work is needed to translate these findings into education practice. 

  • Recent work has uncovered the origins of early individual differences in math competence by examining the kinds of math input children are exposed to at preschool. Studies show that lower socioeconomic status (SES) children are often exposed to far less math talk, which may explain some of the achievement gap in math when children enter school.

Understanding Science
  • Science educators emphasize the connections between science content and reasoning skills, showing how methods are adjusted for the content. They also emphasize how scientific knowledge is acquired, refined, revised, extended and disseminated, including different methods of reasoning and the social and professional context of the scientific enterprise.

  • In addition to what has been discovered, students need to know about how those discoveries were made.

  • Psychological science is able to characterize the different domains of science learning in terms of their cognitive and motivational demands, and use our knowledge of developmental psychology to guide curriculum design and sequencing.

  • One challenge for science instruction is that the language of science is confusingly similar to everyday language — but may actually mean something quite different. Psychologists who study language may be able to shed light on the conditions under which everyday prior knowledge is a source of confusion.

  • Children come to school with preconceptions about the natural world. Questions can be differentiated by those that can be addressed by science and those that cannot.

Social and Motivational Issues
  • Decades of psychological research show that a variety of social and motivational factors (including stereotypes related to gender and racial identity) are related to educational achievement. 

  • Approaching STEM learning situations with learning goals leads to improved performance and greater persistence.

  • Educational interventions designed to increase the prevalence of learning goals lead to increases in engagement with, and mastery of, STEM material.

  • Psychological science has shown the potential benefits of intrinsic motivation and the potential pitfalls of extrinsic motivation in the educational context.

  • Achievement related choices made by pupils are related to two sets of beliefs:

    “Can I do the task?” is connected to confidence in one’s ability to master related material. This confidence is associated with an individual’s attribution of their intelligence to either a fixed state (I am or am not intelligent — a focus on doing better than others and getting recognition for high achievement) as opposed to an incremental view such that intelligence can be developed through challenging instruction, effort, attention and discipline.

    “Do I want to do the task?”
    is related to intrinsic motivation, which can be cultivated by applying teaching strategies designed to harness children’s curiosity about the world and how things work.

Assessment of Learning in Mathematics and Science
  • Effective tests are aligned with effective curriculum that focuses on comprehending the nature of science and mathematics.

  • Effective tests address using evidence to form arguments or to interpret questions or problems.

  • Technology-enhanced instruction can provide detailed information for teachers on what and how students are learning and what problems they are encountering.

Women and Science

Due in part to the under-participation of women in math and science, psychological scientists began looking at various motivational influences on learning and engagement with math and science.

  • Women with interests in STEM fields and a desire to help other people may avoid engineering in favor of the biological and medical sciences.

  • In STEM fields, negative stereotypes can lead to a lack of participation by females. Women’s performance may also suffer due to a fear of confirming the stereotype that they are not as talented as men in some STEM fields.

  • Research has shown that women may view advanced physics courses as less desirable than other advanced courses. However, women are now just as likely as men to work in medical, biological and social science fields and to take advanced mathematics courses.

  • What concepts should educators ensure that children have mastered at each grade?

  • What might be the best sequence of concept instruction within and across grades to maximize student understanding?

  • What is the best way to translate psychological science such that it is most accessible for teachers?

  • What motivational principles applied to instruction are most effective in decreasing group differences and raising overall achievement and understanding in mathematics and science?

  • Will outcomes of small scale studies translate into the same outcomes on a larger scale, and with different subpopulations in school?

  • What study skills should schools promote for different age groups and for different subjects? 

  • How can we ensure that test design includes expertise in:
    (1) student cognition and learning in mathematics and science?
    (2) prompts or contexts that elicit evidence of student competencies?
    (3) interpretation of outcomes for use by educators and policymakers?


Interdisciplinary research has the potential to improve STEM learning.

  • Stakeholders from various disciplines include: psychometricians, learning scientists, STEM educators, discipline specialists, technologists and classroom teachers.

  • The goals are to understand the cognition of student learning, design observations that will provide evidence of student competencies, and interpret the results for teachers, students and policymakers.

Funding is needed for research on: 

  • How do high-stakes tests influence motivation and understanding?

  • How can technology further improve the provision of feedback on learning to teachers?

  • What is the relationship between learning in formal and informal settings?

  • What is the role of anxiety and stereotype threat?

Psychology encompasses many areas of research important to achieving student success in mathematics and science. In order to be most effective, psychology as a discipline needs to engage in multidisciplinary contexts and focus on applications as well as generation of basic knowledge.

About this Report
Task Force members:

  • Chair: Nora Newcombe, Temple Univesity

  • Nalini Ambady, Tufts University

  • Jacquelynne Eccles, University of Michigan

  • Louis Gomez, Northwestern University

  • David Klahr, Carnegie Mellon University

  • Marcia Linn, University of California–Berkeley

  • Kevin Miller, University of Michigan

  • Kelly Mix, Michigan State University

Responses to this report from APA members: