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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.
(http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/anxiety/)
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 on-line (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. [Bold added for
emphasis.]
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.
References
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 http://www.mccc.edu/
~jenningh/Courses/documents/math_anxiety.pdf.
IAE (2011). Stress and education: IAE Newsletters Issues 64-67. Information Age Education. Retrieved 7/15/2012 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
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