US teenagers are most likely to make false boasts about their maths ability

We all know that maths causes anxiety for some people, but new research suggests it can also prompt some students to seem over-confident.

A study published in Assessment in Education Principles Policy and Practice reveals that US teenagers are more likely to claim they’re familiar with mathematical terms that don’t actually exist, than students from other English-speaking countries.

The study also found that boys were more likely to make false boasts than girls.

In a survey of 40,550 students from 9 countries, all 15 years of age, students were asked to score how familiar they were with a number of mathematical terms, some of which were fake.

Students in the US, followed by Canada, were the most likely to “overclaim”: that is, say they understood the fake terms. Students in Scotland and Ireland were the least likely to overclaim.

The researchers, who are based at University College London, UK, and the Australian Catholic University, drew on data from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study.

Run every 3 years, PISA tests 15-year-old students in 70 countries on reading, mathematics or science. The 2012 test was on mathematics, and researchers used data from 9 Anglophone countries: Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the USA.

The assessment included a questionnaire about students’ maths ability and confidence. One question used 16 mathematical terms, where students were asked to score their knowledge on a 5-point-scale from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand the concept”. Three of the terms were fake.

Now, who’s up for a round of Are you smarter than a 15-year-old? Here are the 16 mathematical terms used in the survey, see if you can spot the fake ones. The answers are at the bottom of this article.

Which 3 of these terms is not a real maths concept? Scroll down for the answers!

  1. Exponential function
  2. Divisor
  3. Quadratic function
  4. Proper number
  5. Linear equation
  6. Vectors
  7. Complex number
  8. Rational number
  9. Radicals
  10. Subjunctive scaling
  11. Polygon
  12. Declarative fraction
  13. Congruent figure
  14. Cosine
  15. Arithmetic mean
  16. Probability

The researchers found several trends among the students more likely to over-claim. Male students, those from advantaged backgrounds, and immigrants were all more likely to over-claim.

There were also three distinct groups of countries ranked on likelihood of over-claiming. US and Canadian students were most likely to overclaim by a large margin, while those in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland notably the least likely. England, Australia, New Zealand and Wales formed a central cluster.

Over-claiming students were also more likely to display overconfidence in their mathematical ability and problem-solving skills, based on other questions in the survey.

“Our research provides important new insight into how those who over-claim about their maths ability also exhibit high levels of over-confidence in other areas,” says lead author Professor John Jerrim, a researcher in education and social statistics at University College London.

“Although ‘overclaiming’ may at first seem to be a negative social trait, we have previously found that overconfident individuals are more likely to land top-jobs.

“The fact that young men tend to overclaim their knowledge more than young women, and the rich are more likely to overclaim than the poor, could be related to the different labour market outcomes of these groups.”

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Answer: Numbers 4, 10 and 12 are fake terms.

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