Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Is Math Anxiety Just Another Name for 'Bad at Math'?

This came through my inbox today. I wanted to share it with everyone.

Is Math Anxiety Just Another Name for ‘Bad At Math’?

            “To many people, ‘math’ is a scary four-letter word,” say Sian Beilock (University of Chicago) and Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia) in this article in American Educator. “They don’t like it, they don’t feel like they are very good at it, and they just want to stay away from it.” Math anxiety is associated with poor performance in schools and colleges – and with on-the-job errors by nurses, financial planners, and many others around the world. When does math anxiety get started, where does it come from, and what can be done about it?
            Beilock and Willingham report on research showing that math anxiety emerges early, affecting as many as 50 percent of first and second graders, is directly related to math performance (the more anxiety, the less well students do on math assessments), and is not correlated with performance on reading assessments. So is math anxiety just a manifestation of being bad at math? The authors think not. People with math anxiety would do better at math if they weren’t so anxious. That’s because anxious thoughts (fear of making a mistake, looking stupid in front of other students, displeasing the teacher) impair their working memory, or their mental “scratch pad,” and this means they’re less able to keep several things in mind at the same time – essential to manipulating numbers and solving problems. Brain scans have found this effect when highly math-anxious people even thought about doing math.
            What kicks off math anxiety? Beilock and Willingham say it is associated with children’s math abilities when they first enter school – for example, counting objects, deciding which of two numbers represents the larger quantity, and mentally rotating three-dimensional objects. Having difficulty with these basic skills starts a self-reinforcing cascade of anxiety and poor performance. Oddly, it’s students with the best working memory who are most impaired by anxiety, perhaps because they’ve come to rely on working memory in other areas and it’s shut down by anxiety.
A second source of math anxiety is the signals students get from home, the classroom, and society in general. Children can pick up signals from adults that math is, indeed, something to be worried about. Those students who enter school with math skill deficits are especially susceptible to a teacher’s or parent’s negative comments about the subject. Two studies have shown a direct correlation between female primary-grade teachers’ level of math anxiety and their students’ math performance at the end of the year: the more anxious the teachers were, the worse their students did, especially girls.
There’s a lot more research to be done, but given what we know so far, what can be done? Beilock and Willingham have these suggestions:   
• Ensure fundamental skills. Parents can build their children’s basic counting and spatial skills, and for students who enter school without them, teachers need to diagnose weaknesses and work quickly to improve them before anxiety sets in.
• Focus on teacher training. Building elementary teachers’ confidence and knowledge is essential to reducing their math-anxious vibes. Researchers have found that it’s more effective to teach teachers how to teach math concepts than focusing on the math concepts themselves.
• Don’t use timed math assessments. Racing the clock heightens anxiety; the simple remedy of untimed tests makes it possible for many students to do better work. [See Marshall Memo 538 for an article about timed tests.]
• Get students to write about their feelings. Studies have shown that having students write freely about their emotions about a specific situation (like a looming test) for about 10 minutes can help boost performance. The student thinks, “Oh, maybe this math test isn’t really that big of a deal” and working memory is freed up to focus on the math. Here is the actual prompt that was used in one such situation (students were assured that their writing was anonymous and would not be seen by their teacher): Take the next several minutes to write as openly as possible about your thoughts and feelings regarding the exam you are about to take. In your writing, really let yourself go and explore your emotions and thoughts as you are getting ready to start the exam. You might relate your current thoughts to the way you have felt during other similar situations at school or in other situations in your life. Please try to be as open as possible as you write about your thoughts at this time.
• Think carefully about what to say when students are having difficulty. If we say, “It’s okay, not everyone can be good at these types of problems,” students may interpret that to mean that the work is too hard for them and there’s no hope. “Consolation sends a subtle message that validates the student’s opinion that he’s not good at math, and can lower a student’s motivations and expectations for future performances,” say Beilock and Willingham. A better statement would be, “Yes, this work is challenging, but I know that with hard work you can do it!” Following up with specific study strategies and assistance adds to the power of that statement.

“Ask the Cognitive Scientist – Math Anxiety: Can Teachers Help Students Reduce It?” by Sian Beilock and Daniel Willingham in American Educator, Summer 2014 (Vol. 38, #2, p. 28-32, 43), http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/summer2014/Beilock.pdf