Math Anxiety…And What to Do About It


Image: Flickr/Keoni Carbal

Your mouth is dry. Your armpits are wet. Your brain is neither dry nor wet, but seems to be leaking out your ears. You feel your vision closing to a pinprick around a jumble of symbols that might as well be Cyrillic or hieroglyphic. Yes, it’s a math test. And you know that your math anxiety means you’re almost certain to fail…which makes you even more anxious and more likely to fail. You’re not alone: According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a third of 15-year-olds report feeling helpless when solving math problems. Unfortunately, not only do these students feel helpless, but kids with math anxiety are more likely to be helpless – the higher the anxiety, the lower the scores.

Eventually, math anxiety can be a slippery slope: Anxiety leads to avoidance, which can lead to low performance, which in turn leads to more anxiety and the positive feedback loop of mathematical disaster is off and running. Eventually, without aggressive intervention, the real danger exists that you or someone you love could end up majoring in art history.

But what are the causes of math anxiety? University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock looked through the literature for the answer and the result was just published online in the journal Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Basically, she shows two sources of math anxiety – internal and external factors. That seems kind of obvious and imprecise, but what it means is that complex mixes of what goes on inside and outside of you can spike or heal math anxiety. Think of it like obesity – some combination of diet and exercise leads to obesity and by dialing combinations of these things up or down, you can hope to stay below a threshold at which your trouser coefficient remains constant.

Specifically, the individual factors that affect math anxiety include cognitive skills (how your brain deals with math), physiological responses (the aforementioned cottonmouth and sweating), and motivational style (do you approach or avoid a challenge?). The external factors that can create math anxiety include a teacher’s own math anxiety, a parent’s math anxiety, and how the student perceives the classroom.

This final one, students’ perception of their classroom, is especially tricky, taking into account not just whether the classroom is generally pleasant, but the social and emotional context surrounding a student. Do the student’s peers make the student feel like he or (especially…) she should be good at math? Does the classroom culture seem like it will eat the child with sharp teeth should the student do poorly? Beilock writes that, “students who perceive their classroom as more caring, challenging and mastery-oriented have higher levels of math self-efficacy,” meaning that kids who are pushed in a supportive environment feel like they can do math and so have less anxiety and a better chance of actual success.

Likewise, Beilock points out that adjusting either internal or external factors can lower math anxiety and increase performance. Deep breathing, relaxation training and calming music help. So does talking about it, either just looking back to describe the anxiety they felt at the start of a test or in a more formal, therapeutic environment. And a parent’s willingness to engage in math rubs off on students.  Again, if a student’s internal world is conducive to math, he or she may be able to withstand some external pressures. And if the culture and classroom surrounding a student is “caring, challenging and mastery-oriented” even a student with some predisposition toward math anxiety may be able to keep from bursting the blood pressure cuff.

Math anxiety and along with it math performance come down to adjusting the sliders on a giant mathematical mixing board: push the right sliders up and down, and even students who have felt helpless may have a chance to succeed.

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