This blog is part of our “What Does This Mean for Me” series and was written by Yuri Lin, a virtual intern for NCER.
As an undergraduate student who just completed my required math courses, my days of struggling with math are still fresh in my mind. I know the feelings of shame and anxiety when I struggle to solve math problems, and I know I am far from the only person who has experienced this. I have friends who have blanked on exams and tutored middle schoolers who have experienced the same brand of math anxiety, just a handful of years removed, transposed into different classes.
Math anxiety has been defined as discomfort or nervousness that arises when thinking about doing math or while doing math. In some cases, math anxiety could interfere with one's ability to do math and could lead to lower mathematics achievement. This phenomenon occurs broadly across all age and grade levels, including teachers and adults, and has been estimated to peak in middle and high school. To learn more, I asked four IES-funded researchers to share their discoveries about math anxiety and their advice for students, parents, and math educators.
Sian Beilock, PhD (@sianbeilock), is a cognitive scientist and the eighth President of Barnard College at Columbia University. Her research focuses on brain and body factors that affect performance anxiety.
An Exploration of Malleable Social and Cognitive Factors Associated with Early Elementary School Students' Mathematics Achievement
Key Finding: Math anxiety starts early. We focused specifically on children at the start of formal schooling and found that some reported fear and apprehension around math.
Advice for Parents: For parents, I would stress that it is important not to paint a picture of "some people are good at math and others aren't." We can all get better at math. When parents say things to their children like, "It’s okay; I am not a math person either," even though they are trying to comfort their kids, it sends a very strong signal that some people can do math, and some can't. The result is that kids who are anxious about math avoid it, and an unwanted anxiety-achievement cycle is created.
Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester. His research focuses on the physiological and psychological impacts of stress, as well as how to manage stress responses to promote resilience.
Exploring Stress Responses in the Classroom and Reappraising Stress to Facilitate Academic Performance
Key Finding: Math anxiety is not just a psychological problem but also has important consequences for biological functioning. Community college students who reported higher levels of math anxiety also had unhealthy perceptions of stress and lower levels of testosterone (a performance-enhancing hormone) on days when they had to take a math test.
Advice for Students: Feeling stressed and anxious about math shows that you care, and those feelings of stress and anxiety do not mean one is “not good” at math. In fact, you can even use the stress you feel about math to help meet difficult challenges. Your body evolved stress responses to mobilize resources and help you perform. When you believe stress is a tool to help achieve difficult goals, your body will respond with a challenge response (which is like excitement) to assist you in reaching new heights.
Leigh McLean, PhD, is an Assistant Research Professor at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on teacher-student interactions in classroom environments and how these interactions affect teacher and student outcomes.
Exploring Elementary Teachers' Feelings, Beliefs, and Effectiveness across Mathematics, Science, and Literacy
Key Finding: When teachers are more math-anxious, so are their students. Importantly, when teachers enjoy teaching math and feel more efficacious in their math teaching, student math anxiety decreases and engagement increases. When teachers and parents have math anxiety, children can pick up on this anxiety, and it can impact both how children feel about math themselves and how they perform in math.
Advice for Math Educators: We would advise anyone who is in a role where they are teaching children math to be aware of their own math-related feelings, especially anxiety. Kids will not only pick up on the content adults teach them but also on the emotional signals adults give off. If a caregiver or teacher is experiencing math anxiety, they could try to find ways to increase their own math enjoyment and confidence, and this would likely benefit children’s learning.
Lindsey Richland, PhD (@lerichland), is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on children’s development of mathematics thinking and cognitive skills, as well as teacher best practices to support this development.
Drawing Connections to Close Achievement Gaps in Mathematics
Key Finding: State math anxiety, which describes how much anxiety a student feels in a particular situation, changes a lot as students learn to solve problems that require higher order thinking. This suggests that it is not always helpful to make generalizations about trait anxiety, which is believed to be a fairly stable characteristic in individuals. Instead, it may be more effective to develop specific interventions or learn more about problem types that can affect math anxiety.
Advice for Math Educators and Students: When you’re feeling anxious, you may have worries running through your mind that can distract your attention. One of the best ways to make sure you don’t lose out on learning is to use visual cues to help access information you need. When doing a math problem, write down all your work, rather than trying to do steps in your head. Use prior worked examples to help solve new problems. Teachers can do the same–make sure students have a visual record of classroom instruction that they can return to if their mind wanders or provide worked examples to help students learn new problem-solving techniques.
Written by Yuri Lin, intern for the Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Research and a Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics major at UCLA.