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Math Anxiety: Causes and What To Do

Math Anxiety Causes and Strategies for Coping

I think that math anxiety can be both a learned behavior and/or a genetic tendency. My father was a math professor. In my world, this means that anytime can be pop quiz time. He used to create these math problem worksheets particularly during the summer and if I wasn’t able to solve the problem in, like, two seconds, he would get very agitated. It wasn’t my fault because the math problems would different from what I was learning at school but the net result, I noticed later in life, was that I’d get anxiety during science or math tests particularly in college. If I didn’t have an idea of how to solve the problem immediately, I would spin into a panic mode.

By the time I hit business school with its math-y classes like statistics, I sought the assistance of my engineer brother who was also my business school classmate. Doing stat homework together was very enlightening as we have polar opposite personalities. He would read the problem over … v e r y   s  l  o  w  l  y. If he didn’t know how to start, he’d read it again. Then he’d say things like, “Let’s write down the facts we do know about this problem.”

And then he’d ponder for a long time … like 5 minutes. During this time of slow pondering, I would be fidgeting nervously with my mind racing wildly but not particularly focused on the problem as much as frantically flipping through notes and thinking who else to call for help.Then, slowly, step by step we’d do the problem. And what do you know? He method worked! We would solve problem after problem that way.

You know what? Slow and steady does win the race. I applied this new math solving methodology to math tests but it wasn’t easy. The latest research shows that math anxiety is more prevalent in girls than boys, and that it actually prevents you from performing in that it cuts of working memory in the brain. Math anxiety is more prevalent in girls than boys and once there is a negative association with math, it precludes that person from pursuing a host of [lucrative] careers. Luckily, there are strategies to decrease math anxiety.

Here are some interesting points from the article. The full article is here.

  • Experts argue that “math anxiety” can bring about widespread, intergenerational discomfort with the subject, which could lead to anything from fewer students pursuing math and science careers to less public interest in financial markets.
  • Mathematics anxiety is more than just disliking math, however; someone with math anxiety feels negative emotions when engaging in an activity that requires numerical or math skills.
  • Researchers have found that the more anxious their female teachers were about math, the more likely girls—but not boys— were to endorse gender-related stereotypes about math ability. In turn, the girls who echoed those stereotypical beliefs were performing less well than other students in math by year’s end.
  • Anxiety can literally cut off the working memory needed to learn and solve problems.
  • Students tested in stressful situations had lower math performance. She also found that stress hit otherwise promising students the hardest.
  • Two problems in a child’s earliest school experiences—one biological, the other social—can build into big math fears later on.
  • Moreover, math anxiety can become a generational problem, with adults uncomfortable with math passing negative feelings on to their children or students.
  • Eugene A. Geist, an associate professor at Ohio University in Athens and the author of the 2001 book, Children Are Born Mathematicians, works with math teachers to create “anxiety-free classrooms” for students. He advises teachers to have students focus on learning mathematics processes, rather than relying on the answer keys in a textbook, which can undermine both their own and the teacher’s confidence in their math skills.

math anxiety poor math performance girls worse at math than boys Pragmatic Mom PragmaticMom

Researchers Probe Causes of Math Anxiety

It’s more than just disliking math, according to scholars

By Sarah D. Sparks

Math problems make more than a few students—and even teachers—sweat, but new brain research is providing insights into the earliest causes of the anxiety so often associated with mathematics.

Experts argue that “math anxiety” can bring about widespread, intergenerational discomfort with the subject, which could lead to anything from fewer students pursuing math and science careers to less public interest in financial markets.

“People are very happy to say they don’t like math,” said Sian L. Beilock, a University of Chicago psychology professor and the author of Choke, a 2010 book on brain responses to performance pressure. “No one walks around bragging that they can’t read, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say you don’t like math.”

Mathematics anxiety is more than just disliking math, however; someone with math anxiety feels negative emotions when engaging in an activity that requires numerical or math skills. In one forthcoming study by Ms. Beilock, simply suggesting to college students that they would be asked to take a math test triggered a stress response in the hypothalamus of students with high math anxiety.

Ms. Beilock and other experts at a Learning and the Brain conference held here May 5-7 are searching for the earliest problems in a child’s math career that can grow into lifelong fears and difficulties. The conference, put on by the Needham, Mass.-based Public Information Resources, Inc., brought together several hundred educators and administrators with researchers in educational neuroscience and cognitive science.

For complete article, click here.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom

2 Comments

  1. Great post, sharing a great article! I am a homeschooling mom of two boys, ages 11 and 6. My oldest has a lot of fear when it comes to math. My husband hated math growing up, and quite honestly, did very poorly with it. We used to joke about that a lot in front of the boys, thinking if we found it funny, maybe they wouldn’t stress so much. Unfortunately, I think that backfired on us…and I think it ended up giving my son this predisposition of “oh great, if daddy stank at it, so will I.”

    We still struggle with math, maybe not every day, but often. Luckily, we have an online homeschool curriculum that helps us conquer math anxiety by letting the boys work at their own pace. They can advance in other concepts and subjects, yet hang back in math and spend a little more time working on what they are struggling with or what is bothering them.

    Again, great post sharing a great article!

    Thanks,
    Katie

    • To Katie,
      I’m glad you found the post helpful. I know how easy it is to freeze on a difficult problem so it was intriguing to find studies on this. I thought it was just me! I think your approach sounds right on.

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