By Daniel Willingham
This column first appeared at RealClearEducation.com on June 12, 2014
How can we do a better job of teaching kids math? A different curriculum? New pedagogical strategies? Personalized instruction through technology? All these worthy ideas have their adherents, but another method—reducing math anxiety—may both improve performance and help kids enjoy math more. Sian Beilock and Daniel Willingham recently reviewed the research literature on math anxiety with an eye towards remediation. Here are some of the highlights.
Math anxiety means, unsurprisingly, that one feels tension and apprehension in situations involving math. What is surprising is the frequency of the problem, and the young age at which it can start. Fully half of first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety. And many children do not outgrow it; about 25% of students attending a four-year college suffer from math anxiety. Among community college students, the figure is 80%.
The consequences of math anxiety are also unsurprising; people avoid situations where they might have to do math. So as you’d predict, math anxiety is associated with having difficulty in math. Now you might think “Well, math anxiety actually sounds pretty logical. If you’re bad at math, then doing math would make you anxious.” But it’s not just appropriate anxiety about facing a tough challenge; the term “math anxiety” is used only in cases where the person would perform better at math if he or she were calmer.
And that gives us a start on understanding the mechanism of the problem. Anxiety distracts. It’s hard to focus on the math because your mind is preoccupied with concern that you’ll fail, that you’ll look stupid, and so on. Every math problem is a multi-tasking situation, because all the while the person is trying to work the problem, he’s also preoccupied with anxious thoughts.
There seem to be two sources of math anxiety. First, there’s a vicious cycle at work; you’re anxious because the math is hard, the anxiety makes you avoid math, and that lack of practice makes the math still harder. We might guess, then, that the cycle might start with the very earliest math instruction, and indeed there is evidence that children who have trouble with basic numeric skills—counting, appreciating which of two numbers is the larger—are at greater risk for developing math anxiety.
The second source of math anxiety is social. Kids learn from adults—parents, teachers, figures in the media—that math is hard, and something to be feared. For example, students are at greater risk to develop math anxiety if their teacher is anxious about math. This social communication constitutes information for kids about how to think about their difficulty with math; it’s hard not because you’re inexperienced and need more practice, but because lots of people (maybe including you) just can’t do it. They aren’t “math people.”
So what can be done?
The sources of math anxiety provide strong clues about how to address it. First, we can work hard to ensure that all children acquire basic skills. Math won’t provoke anxiety if kids know they can handle it. Second, teacher training can include information about how to talk to kids who do encounter difficulties; how to ensure that kids see their setbacks as a normal part of learning and problems that can be overcome, rather than as evidence that they are simply no good at math.
The testing of a third strategy is still in its infancy, but shows promise. Some studies show that giving students ten minutes to write about their emotions just before a math exam significantly boosts scores. The idea is that getting their thoughts on paper prompts students to reevaluate how anxious they really ought to be. The thought “it would be catastrophic to fail this test!” may race through your mind, but when you start to set it down on paper, you’re likely to think “well. . . .would failing really be a catastrophe?” Ten minutes of this writing reflection may put the upcoming confrontation with math in perspective, and so feelings of anxiety will not be consuming the student’s thoughts and attention during the exam.
Researchers and educators must continue to seek new pedagogies to improve math education. In parallel with these efforts, we should seek methods to address math anxiety. The payoff could be significant.
Beilock, S. & Willingham, D. T. (2014). Math anxiety: Can teachers help students reduce it? American Educator, Summer, 28-32,43.
Math anxiety: What it does and what can be done
By Daniel Willingham