In the News: Combating the Negative Effects of Math Anxiety


Duren Thompson
EFFTIPS Editor/Admin

Here’s something we found online that seems like an interesting idea for adult education practitioners:

Today I ran across this from Science Daily:
Math Anxiety Causes Trouble for Students as Early as First Grade

…which brings together two articles co-written by researcher Sian L. Beilock from the University of Chicago (see references below). Beilock and his co-authors have been involved in research focused on causes and solutions for math anxiety in very young learners.  Aware that many adult learners describe or exhibit math anxieties (based on my own experiences and those related by adult education practitioners), I thought this information might be applicable to what we do.

One result of the research examined in this article1 is a better understanding of the relationship between working memory and math anxiety – in even the youngest learners. In the Science Daily article, Beilock is quoted as saying:

“You can think of working memory as a kind of ‘mental scratchpad’ that allows us to ‘work’ with whatever information is temporarily flowing through consciousness.  It’s especially important when we have to do a math problem and juggle numbers in our head.”

Worries about math can disrupt working memory, which students could otherwise use to succeed.”

This research goes on to posit that those with stronger working memory are likely to be more affected by math anxiety  (an interesting implication for those with learning disabilities in math), but Beilock also strongly cautions that:

“Educators should not only consider math learning in terms of concepts, procedures, math curricula and instruction but also the emotions and anxieties children may bring to the learning situation.”

We’ve touched on the importance of addressing math fears previously in a post where Donna Curry recommended that algebra fear can be combated by, “Activities based on real-life examples, solved with concrete tools like [play] money or other manipulatives…”  More ideas can be found in another article cited by Science Daily,2 in which authors Beilock and Maloney state, “… regulation of the negativity associated with math situations may increase math success, even for those individuals who are chronically math anxious.”

Two techniques for helping learners to regulate or ‘reframe’ math anxiety suggested by the authors are:

Expressive writing: Have students write about their worries regarding math ahead of time. This is believed to help students to, “…download worries and minimize anxiety’s effects on working memory.” For students with low writing ability (or very young students), “…expressive picture drawing, rather than writing, may also help lessen the burden of math anxiety.”

Support an emotional shift: Anxiety is a ‘heightened’ or aroused emotional state. Teachers can help students to shift their thinking to a more advantageous heightened emotional state like anticipation. For example, “…when students view a math test as a challenge rather than a threat,” their performance increases as their emotions are heightened (vs anxiety which reduces performance as it grows stronger).

What do you think? Is this information useful to you?  Please share your thoughts about math anxiety!

What are your experiences with students with math anxiety? Do you have other ways you help learners to reduce their fears?

Have you used either of these approaches with Adult Learners?  I’m wondering if expressive writing could also tie into strengthening writing fluency or confidence?

Have you recently found something interesting ‘in the news’? If so – let us know at eff@utk.edu.

mm


References:

1 Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E.A., Levine, S.C. and Beilock, S.L. (2012 in press) Math anxiety, working memory and math achievement in early elementary school. Journal of Cognition and Development.  Retrieved on 9/13/12 from http://home.uchicago.edu/ramirezg/RamirezG_MathAnxietyManuscript_workingdraft.doc
(Note, I had trouble downloading this – right clicking on the link and choosing ‘save target as’ worked for me.)

2 Maloney, E. A., & Beilock, S. L. (2012). Math anxiety: who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(8), 404-406.  Retrieved on 9/13/12 from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661312001465


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Posted on September 13, 2012, in Math and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This prompts me to ask what “math comfort” looks like? Has anybody written from the affirmative — building math comfort — rather than from the negative — helping learners overcome math anxiety? Does thinking about math comfort have any advantages for teachers over thinking about math anxiety? Has anyone studied math comfort? If so, are teachers and/or learners happier with the idea of “building math comfort and fluency”?

    If math is a language — I think it is — then are any of the issues of “math anxiety” the same as “language learning anxiety”? Has anyone studied and written about language learning anxiety, and if so, is any of this research applicable to teaching numeracy or math?

  2. David- a couple quick thoughts here. When we did the TIAN project (Teachers Investigating Adult Numeracy- see also http://adultnumeracy.terc.edu/TIAN_home.html), we did indeed ask teachers about their ‘comfort’ in teaching mathematics. The TIAN model helped teachers learn more about both math content and math pedagogy. After participating in the project, most reported increased levels of comfort in math instruction. To continue with your question, have similar efforts been done with adult learners?

    As regards to language, I certainly agree that mathematics/numeracy has its own language. Seems like that could certainly add to the burden in the learning of math.
    Aaron

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