Math anxiety and stress in adults


Math Anxiety and Stress

"What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number?" (Warren McCulloch; American neuropsysiologist and cybernetician; 1898–1969.)

It is common to experience moments of anxiety. A severe anxiety may lead to a phobia, such as agoraphobia or math phobia. Anxieties and phobias are stressful. A series of four IAE Newsletters focused on Stress and education (IAE, 2011). Stress is bad for one’s overall health as well as for one’s performance in the areas causing the stress. A great many students and others are math phobic. They make statements such as "I can't do math." and "I hate math."

Math anxiety is a chronic disorder characterized by excessive, long-lasting anxiety and worry about math situations such as tests and general math performance. Math phobia is an irrational fear and avoidance of math.

Our informal and formal math education system produces a very large number of adults who have math anxieties—even to the level of being math phobic. It is appropriate to ask "Why?" and "What can we do about it?"

Definition of Anxiety

Quoting from Medical News Today:

Anxiety is a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. These disorders affect how we feel and behave, and they can manifest real physical symptoms. Mild anxiety is vague and unsettling, while severe anxiety can be extremely debilitating, having a serious impact on daily life. (

Anxiety and panic have long been recognized as human ailments. Quoting from A Brief History of Anxiety (Makari, 4/16/2012):

After 1800, anxious experiences began to be considered in and of themselves. … A series of descriptive medical terms emerged within different cultures. The French wrote of "angoisse," a species of tortured misery that bordered on anguish. Germans adopted the term "Angst," which referred to a terrible foreboding, a grave fear of some future event. The Spanish spoke of a freaked-out breathlessness they called "Angustia." And in 1879, a British doctor distinguished worry from "panic," a term derived from the story of the Arcadian god Pan, who was said to make noises in the woodlands that inspired unbridled terror.

Math Anxiety and Phobia

Excellent summaries of the math stress literature are available in (Ashcraft, 2002) and (Hellum-Alexander, 2010). Math anxiety and math phobia are common. Mark Ashcraft’s 2002 paper is often referenced in the research literature. After discussing math anxiety in timed math tests, he says:

Fortunately, there are ways out of this dilemma. One is to test additional samples of participants on untimed, pencil-and-paper versions of the math problems studied in the lab. For example, we (Faust, Ashcraft, & Fleck, 1996) found no anxiety effects on whole-number arithmetic problems when participants were tested using a pencil and- paper format. But when participants were tested online (i.e., when they were timed as they solved the problems mentally under time pressure in the lab), there were substantial anxiety effects on the same problems.

A number of math anxiety researchers suggest that the basic nature of the way we teach math and the preparation of teachers of math are some of the underlying causes of math anxiety. Quoting from Russell (n.d.):

Typically math phobics have had math presented in such a fashion that it led to limited understanding. Unfortunately, math anxiety is often due to poor teaching and poor experiences in math that typically leads to math anxiety. Many of the students I've encountered with math anxiety have demonstrated an over reliance on procedures in math as opposed to actually understanding the math. When one tries to memorize procedures, rules, and routines without much understanding, the math is quickly forgotten and panic soon sets in.

Russell also points out that many parents and many elementary school teachers have a high level of math anxiety or are actually math phobic. Research indicates that this contributes to students developing math anxieties.

Analogy with Public Speaking

Fear of speaking in public is perhaps the most common of anxieties. Many people have a high level of anxiety when faced by the task of speaking before a group. This is even true for teachers who routinely talk to a classroom full of students. Speaking before a group of their students does not produce fear and anxiety. The fear and anxiety come when faced by the mere thought of performing before a public group of one’s peers. What will your audience think of you if you make a mistake or do not perform very well?

Think about a somewhat similar situation, but of a student being asked to do math in front of his or her peers in a classroom, or being asked to do math on a test where the results will be scrutinized and graded. Both the public speaking and the "mathing" involve performing with the possibility of not performing at a level that meets the expectations of oneself and/or others.

Public speaking has a number of characteristics in common with carrying on a conversation with a friend or acquaintance. Small errors in sentence structure, grammar, or vocabulary, and pauses filled in with "uh-uh-well-hmm-uh" or "you know" are common. We do not expect perfection in a casual conversation, and we easily accommodate errors.

In math performance, however, we have all been schooled in the idea of math problems having right and wrong answers, and the goal is a high level of perfection in performance. So actual failure experiences in math and fear of future failures seem to be two underlying causes of math anxiety and phobia.

Jo Boaler's Research

Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University and the author of the popular book, What’s math got to do with it? How parents and teachers can help children learn to love their least favorite subject.

Jo Boaler's 2012 article, Timed tests and the development of math anxiety, provides an excellent summary of recent research on how timed math tests contribute to children developing math anxiety. Her paper argues that math anxiety contributes to the "I hate math" and the "I can’t do math" phenomena.

Quoting from Boaler's 2012 article:

The personal and educational consequences of math anxiety are great. Math anxiety affects about 50 percent of the U.S. population and more women than men. Researchers know that math anxiety starts early. They have documented it in students as young as 5, and that early anxiety snowballs, leading to math difficulties and avoidance that only get worse as children get older. Researchers also know that it is not related to overall intelligence.

Until recently, we have not known the causes of math anxiety and how it affects the brain, but the introduction of brain-imaging research has given us new and important evidence. Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, for example, has found that when children are put under math stress, they are unable to execute math problems successfully. The stress impedes their working memory—the area of the brain where we hold math facts….

I would argue that this particular policy—of giving young children timed math tests—is one of the clearest ways schools damage children, and we now have evidence of the extent of the damage.

Boaler has done research on a number of important math education topics. Her article on ability grouping (Boaler 2005) is certainly related to math anxiety. Many schools make use of ability grouping in math. Boaler cites research indicating that the initial grouping of such students tends to stay with most of them throughout their schooling. She argues that ability grouping is a poor way to teach math.

In brief summary, if a very young student is identified as having low math ability and grouped accordingly, this student is apt to remain at that level throughout his or her schooling. Quite young students quickly understand the difference between being in the red, blue, or green group for math or for other subjects such as reading. It is no wonder that so many develop anxieties about their math abilities and performances.

What You Can Do

We know that stress can be harmful to health and to academic performance. (See the two articles listed in the Suggested Reading section.) Our educational system seems to think that timed tests and high-stakes testing are an important component of the overall educational process.

This IAE Newsletter presents some of the research data supporting that timed tests are having a significant detrimental affect on the math education of young children. There are alternative methods of determining whether young children are learning what schools want them to learn.

My recommendation is that you seek out alternative approaches to math assessment that are less stressful to your students and experiment with implementing them.


Ashcraft, Mark H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved 7/10/2012 from

Boaler, Jo (2005). The ‘Psychological Prisons’ from which they never escaped: The role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities. Forum. Retrieved 7/14/2012 from

Boaler, Jo (2009). What’s math got to do with it? How parents and teachers can help children learn to love their least favorite subject. Penguin.

Boaler, Jo (7/3/2012). Timed tests and the development of math anxiety. Education Week. Retrieved 7/5/2012 from (See also

Hellum-Alexander, Alaina (2010). Effective teaching strategies for alleviating math anxiety and increasing self-efficacy in secondary students. Retrieved 7/14/2012 from

IAE (2011). Stress and education: IAE Newsletters Issues 64-67. Information Age Education. Retrieved 7/15/2012 from

Makari, George (4/16/2012). Brief history of anxiety. New York Times. Retrieved 7/14/2012 from

Russell, Deb (n.d.). Math anxiety. Guide. Retrieved 7/14/2012 from

Additional Suggested Reading

Readers of this IAE Newsletter may also enjoy:
Educational tips on the neurobiology of learning available at

Brain science and cognitive neuroscience for children and teachers available at

Performing well and choking badly under pressure available at

The Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge.