Lions, Tigers, and Algebra? Recent Studies on Math Anxiety
Think about the last time you got irrationally anxious.
Maybe you were standing on top of that high ropes course, about to walk across a tightrope 30 feet above the ground. You tried to reassure yourself that your harness would keep you from falling and that the likelihood that the rope would break or that something would malfunction was infinitesimally small, but somehow that did nothing to alleviate your fears. You froze, unable to move. Your hands got clammy, you felt light-headed, and all you wanted was out, to be on terra firma once more.
It makes sense that we feel anxious when our physical lives are in jeopardy. Fear is a healthy emotion when survival is at stake. The problem arises when we experience fear and all of the accompanying symptoms for non-threatening events, such as math.
Make no mistake, there are times when solving a math problem is a matter life-or-death. One only has to think of that harrowing scene from Apollo 13 where Jim Lovell had to calculate by hand the trajectory to slingshot the Lunar Module System around the Moon back to Earth. An accidental slip-up with negative signs could have sent him to Pluto instead of home. If anyone in the history of math should have felt anxious about his computations, it was Jim Lovell. Contrast that example of legitimate math anxiety with the final question on your recent math test and you’ll see that most of your math situations don’t warrant the anxiety you feel in the moment.
It may be surprising to note that an estimated 25 percent of four-year college students experience moderate to high degrees of math anxiety. Even among first- and second-grade students, who were given a standardized test of math achievement, 50% reported medium to high levels of math anxiety. Math anxiety is a common experience, but that shouldn’t prevent us from learning what causes it and how to deal with it.
One answer to the cause and potential solution for math anxiety lies in the exposure the student had to the subject. When a student struggled with a math problem and was unsure of how to proceed, was that child taught to enjoy those moments because it meant that legitimate learning was right around the corner, or was that child taught to avoid those moments because they revealed that student’s weaknesses and deficiencies? Depending on how the student interprets those moments, he/she will either develop an enjoyment of or dislike for math.
Unfortunately, math anxiety can sometimes find sources close to home. Research from the University of Chicago found that students whose parents themselves were math-anxious and who helped their children on homework were themselves prone to math-anxiety. What’s interesting is that only involved parents passed on their anxiety to their children. Parents who were math-anxious and who let someone else helped their student did not contribute either way to their child’s feeling about math.
Other outside forces can also benefit students with math anxiety. Another study found that math tutoring helped to reduce anxiety about math and also improve performance. By exposing students to math problems in a non-threatening, encouraging environment, tutoring can “[fix] abnormal responses in the brain’s fear circuits.”
The two studies point to the importance of positive, non-threatening exposure to math. As parents who may struggle with math, we need to be careful how we approach the subject, avoiding statements like “I also was not good at math when I was your age,” or “I never understood this concept when I was in school!” Children can hear in those words statements like “I wasn’t good at math, so neither will you be,” or “I didn’t value math and have experienced success in life, so you shouldn’t value math either.”
Instead, it may be worth looking at ways to infuse your child with positive math experiences. Matching your child with a math tutor who loves the subject and can provide encouraging opportunities to make math discoveries may be one step. Another might be to rekindle your own appreciation for math. I highly recommend the six-part series on math featured in the New York Times as a starting point.
Anxiety is a normal part of life, but too many students are letting math anxiety rob them of an appreciation of a thrilling and rewarding subject. The more you can put yourself in experiences that present math as a fun and rewarding puzzle, the more you can save your anxious feelings for run-ins with lions and daring astronautic rescues.