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The Interplay Between Motivation and Cognition in Elementary and Middle School Mathematics

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Getting and keeping children engaged in mathematics is a critical but difficult aspect of mathematics education. This may be especially crucial during middle childhood, when children experience significant changes in cognitive development and declines in mathematics motivation. A growing body of research has investigated motivation’s contribution to mathematics learning and achievement; a largely separate literature has researched cognitive and numeracy contributors. Understanding how motivation and cognition jointly contribute to mathematical performance during middle childhood can help to identify the intervention targets that may have the most impact on mathematics achievement. However, little research has investigated the interplay between motivation and cognition in middle childhood mathematics. This chapter reviews existing studies, including the authors’ own research, that concurrently investigate motivation and cognition in the context of mathematics, and discusses how these findings can be used to understand mathematics achievement during middle childhood with a focus on grades 3–5. The authors also illustrate how existing motivational theories can be expanded to include cognitive processes, using Situated Expectancy–Value Theory as an example, and how such integration can inform instructional practice. Finally, the chapter recommends educational practices and discusses open questions and limitations within the field that future research can address.


  • Achievement goals
  • Expectancy–value
  • Mathematics achievement
  • Mathematics cognition
  • Self-determination theory

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The authors’ work cited in this chapter was supported by the Institute of Educational Sciences [grant number R305A090527] and the National Science Foundation [grant number 1544273]. The funding sources did not have any involvement in the study design; in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; or in the writing of the report. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Allison S. Liu .

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Appendix A: Review Methodology

Appendix A: Review Methodology

Inclusion & Exclusion Criteria

The review only included studies that investigated relations between at least one motivational construct, at least one cognitive construct, and at least one mathematics achievement outcome. We required studies to use motivational constructs that fit within the frameworks of Situated Expectancy–Value Theory (SEVT), Self-Determination Theory (SDT), or Achievement Goal Theory (AGT). Cognitive constructs also had to fit within domain-specific cognition (e.g., number sense) or domain-general cognition (e.g., executive functions, general intelligence or cognition). At least part of the study’s participant sample had to include 3rd to 5th grade students (8–11 years old). We only included studies written in English.

Literature Identification

We conducted three sets of literature searches, based on our three motivation theories of interest. All literature searches began with the keywords “math” and “elementary,” combined with additional keywords that were specific to one of our three motivational theories of interest: (1) “expectancy value”; (2) “self determination,” “intrinsic motivation,” and “extrinsic motivation”; and (3) “achievement goal theory,” “performance goal,” and “mastery goal.” We also included one more keyword about either domain-specific (i.e., “number,” “number sense,” “domain specific”) or domain-cognitive factors (i.e., “cog*,” “domain general,” “executive function,” “intelligence”). For each manuscript, we used the title to determine preliminary relevance. We utilized the Google Scholar database for the search. We reviewed the first ten pages of search results for each of the searches, finding a total of 207 (89 SEVT, 48 SDT, and 70 AGT) potentially relevant articles.

Inclusion Screening

We read the abstracts and methods of the 207 studies to decide on their inclusion for the literature review. 175 (74 SEVT, 42 SDT, 59 AGT) studies were excluded for not meeting our inclusion criteria upon closer review (e.g., outside of the intended age range, missing a cognitive and motivational construct in one of the three theories of interest, no mathematics achievement outcome). The remaining articles were then skimmed in full to screen for quality, and additional studies were identified through backward and forward citation searches (8 SEVT, 2 SDT, 3 AGT), for a final total of 32 relevant studies (15 SEVT, 6 SDT, 11 AGT).

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Liu, A.S., Rutherford, T., Karamarkovich, S.M. (2023). The Interplay Between Motivation and Cognition in Elementary and Middle School Mathematics. In: Robinson, K.M., Dubé, A.K., Kotsopoulos, D. (eds) Mathematical Cognition and Understanding. Springer, Cham.

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  • Print ISBN: 978-3-031-29194-4

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