Math anxiety — fear that prevents learning — starts young, writes Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia psychology professor, in RealClearEducation. Half of first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety. By college, 25 percent of university students — and 80 percent of community college students — suffer from math anxiety.
Anxiety distracts. It’s hard to focus on the math because your mind is preoccupied with concern that you’ll fail, that you’ll look stupid, and so on. Every math problem is a multi-tasking situation, because all the while the person is trying to work the problem, he’s also preoccupied with anxious thoughts.
“Children who have trouble with basic numeric skills — counting, appreciating which of two numbers is the larger—are at greater risk for developing math anxiety,” he writes.
But math anxiety also is learned from anxious adults. If an elementary teacher is nervous about her math skills, her students are more likely to be anxious.
They conclude “it’s hard not because you’re inexperienced and need more practice, but because lots of people (maybe including you) just can’t do it.” They conclude they’re just not “math people.”
Teaching children basic skills is the first step to preventing math anxiety, writes Willingham. In addition, teachers can be traind on “how to talk to kids who do encounter difficulties; how to ensure that kids see their setbacks as a normal part of learning and problems that can be overcome, rather than as evidence that they are simply no good at math.”
A third strategy — giving students 10 minutes to write about their emotions before an exam — can raise scores, recent studies show. Writing may help students put their “upcoming confrontation with math in perspective, and so feelings of anxiety will not be consuming the student’s thoughts and attention during the exam.”
Willingham has more on math anxiety in American Educator‘s Ask the Cognitive Scientist.