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Personality and Interest: Key Factors Impacting Math Performance

7 July 2023

± minute read

    Personality and Interest: Key Factors Impacting Math Performance
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Authors: Pakeezah Rajab and Sharlene Olivier

Mathematics education in South Africa has long been a concern, with students consistently performing poorly compared to international benchmarks. With only 55% of students passing mathematics in 2022 and a decline in pass rates due to the impact of COVID-19, it is crucial to explore new approaches to improve math performance. In this blog post, we will delve into a recent study that sheds light on the impact of personality and interest on math performance. By understanding these factors, we can develop strategies to better support students and enhance their mathematical abilities.

Research Orientation:

The study aims to address the need for a multidisciplinary approach to improve math performance in South Africa. While cognitive functioning is crucial, it is not the sole predictor of a student's potential. Personality and interest can provide valuable insights beyond cognitive abilities. Interestingly, while personality and interest assessments are commonly used in the workplace, they are rarely considered in the school setting. This study sought to bridge that gap by using industry-standard assessments to predict math performance within the school system.

Theoretical Framework:

The study explores the influence of personality and interest on math performance. Cognition consists of two components: crystallised intelligence, acquired through education, and fluid intelligence, which represents innate problem-solving abilities. In the context of South Africa’s diverse education landscape, fluid intelligence assessments offer a fairer evaluation, as they are not influenced by language barriers. These assessments tap into problem-solving skills and abstract thinking, which align with the requirements of mathematics education.

Personality Factors:

The study employs the five-factor model of personality, known as the OCEAN model. Openness to experience reflects a willingness to think abstractly and approach equations creatively. Conscientiousness, related to diligence and effort, is a strong predictor of academic performance. Extraversion and agreeableness show limited influence on math performance, while neuroticism or emotional stability can impact math anxiety and performance negatively.


The study involved 148 students who provided their June 2022 mathematics marks and completed various assessments. The Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices, a nonverbal assessment of cognitive functioning, tapped into fluid intelligence. The Basic Traits Inventory assessed personality traits using South African norms, ensuring cultural relevance. The JVR Career Type Scale measured students' interest preferences, aligning with the realistic model of interest.

Statistical Findings and Practical Applications:

The study analysed the data collected and explored the impact of personality and interest on math performance. Results indicated that personality and interest do contribute significantly to predicting math performance beyond cognitive functioning. Students who scored higher on openness to experience, conscientiousness, and emotional stability tended to perform better in mathematics. The findings highlight the importance of considering these factors when developing strategies to support students' math learning.

Takeaway Messages and Recommendations:

Based on the study's findings, it is crucial to adopt a holistic approach to mathematics education. Beyond focusing solely on cognitive abilities, educators, parents, and students should recognise the influence of personality and interest on math performance. By understanding individual traits and preferences, tailored strategies can be developed to engage and support students effectively. Emphasising problem solving, abstract thinking, and creative approaches can enhance math learning experiences. 

Read the full research paper here (from page 389) 

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