On Math Anxiety

Just below the placid surface is an infinite wellspring of anxiety. Image courtesy of Christopher Michel via Flickr CC.

Math anxiety is so real.  We’ve always kind of known it, but a study confirmed it in 2017. By reading the brain functioning of math anxious and math non-anxious people while performing simple arithmetic problems, the research shows that people are better at automatic problem solving when the parts of their brains associated with math anxiety aren’t activated.  So that feeling you get when someone asks you to quickly multiply two numbers and you just stare at them, tearing up, like a sad deer in headlights…that’s real. 

So we know it’s real.  And we know that a lot lot lot of people feel it (disclaimer, sometimes I have really had bad math anxiety…sometimes math still makes me cry) but that doesn’t change the fact that everyone has to get through some amount of math education.  This means we need to teach math in a way that minimizes the stimulation of that anxious brain and maximizes the release of those glorious math fueled dopamines. 

Stan Yoshinobu, who writes The IBL Blog, published a collection of student voices on math anxiety. The student voices will likely sound familiar to you, and what doesn’t surprise me at all is the the fact that the quotes Yoshinobu collected come for college students but I’ve heard the same words coming from the mouths of people 50 years removed from formal education.  People carry that anxiety with them forever and it’s so intense

This is bad situation, since studies have also shows that math anxiety is contagious; math anxious parents pass on their attitudes and mindsets to their children and perpetuate the problem even with the best of intentions.  Also, a recent study of elementary school teachers showed the impact of mindset on student outcomes. Teachers with a growth mindset produce more successful students.

As a way to mitigate the anxiety, Yoshinobu blogged about the iceberg diagram for recognizing and addressing student anxiety. In the post, he points out some of the nonverbal and non-obvious ways that student anxiety manifests and how they can be addressed.  One point he brings up is the interplay between math anxiety and other attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets that can inhibit learning.  Looming large among them is stereotype threat, the idea that people “like you” aren’t good at math so you won’t be either.

An interview with one of the authors of the 2017 study, Sian Bailock, also discusses stereotype threat and how to avoid introducing it to children.  Bailock’s research focuses on the various types of situations —  whether in math, sports, or life — that can “rob us of the cognitive horsepower that we need to succeed.”

Whether you’re teaching university level abstract algebra, or helping your kid add fractions at the kitchen table, the anxiety can be just below the surface — yours or theirs, depending on your own level of mathematical trauma.  This semester I’m going to try and pay more attention to student buy-in and intentional mindset conditioning throughout the semester.  So I’m curious, what sort of exercises do you do at the beginning, middle, end of the semester to help improve attitudes and beliefs in your classes?  Let me know here in the comments, or on Twitter @extremefriday.  

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2 Responses to On Math Anxiety

  1. Sue VanHattum says:

    If tests trigger your math anxiety, you can use this guided meditation to help. A number of my students have let me know how helpful it is. http://mathmamawrites.blogspot.com/2009/09/math-relax-guided-visualization-for.html

  2. DC says:

    One possibility is to simply inform students more about how learning works. There is an article by Bjork, Dunlosky, and Kornell about self-regulated learning. The article isn’t about math anxiety, but it discusses some learning myths that might make students anxious if students believe them.

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