Scared of math

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.

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  1. I don’t believe any of this “math anxiety” stuff. Is there any difference, in theory or in practice, between people with “math anxiety” and people who are simply crappy in math? Although I have no doubt that there is someone somewhere who would otherwise be good at math but who suffers from math anxiety, in the many years I have taught mathematical subjects in university, I have never come across any examples of this.

    I HAVE, however, seen many examples of people with the opposite problem: they have an irrational lack of fear of math. Because of crappy “math” courses they have passed, they think they possess a competence that they actually completely lack.

  2. If kids get good math instruction in grades K-5 (elementary school), they won’t have issues with Math anxiety at all, now some concepts might be harder to grasp, but poor instruction in math in the early years leads to massive problems later in school.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I used to have something like math anxiety…. in 5th grade, every day we’d have Math time — about 90 minutes, I think. I dreaded that. I couldn’t tell you why, in retrospect, but I used every opportunity I could to get out of the classroom for that. “Anxious” is exactly the word.

    Here’s what’s weird.

    I went to a different school later that year (actually, a few, but one in particular) and practically overnight turned into a “Math person”. I excelled.

    Apparently all it took was a switch of programs, teachers, classrooms, or some combination of the three.

    So it’s not at all clear to me that people with so-called “math anxiety” really have anxiety about Mathematics *simpliciter*.

    It’s likely tied up with a lot of highly contingent, collateral issues.

  4. Perhaps things might be improved if kids were explicitly TAUGHT arithmetic and given sufficient practice to master the material? As opposed to being expected to discover same? (or reading) After all, how many millions of years did it take for humans to develop written language and mathematics?

  5. Elizabeth says:

    For a long time in this country, math has been considered some magical thing that is supposed to be hard for most and easy for a very few- and its been considered innate. Perhaps because elementary school teachers have ben math averse. My GF attended a one room schoolhouse in the early part of the last century- his school marm taught reading and language well, math, not so well.

    • Elizabeth, typically, teachers in Elementary School are probably the poorest instructors of math in all grade levels in U.S. Public schools. Additionally, since most ES teachers are women, it’s perceived as a STEM issue, and typically dominated by males (at least later in life).

      I’m in agreement with momof4, you cannot learn math by trying to discover the joys of math, you can only learn math by understanding the basic operations (Add, Subtract, Multiply, and Divide) and then once those are mastered, move on to more complex items.

      The common core concept about trying to describe math is doomed to fail, due to the fact that in the real world, you don’t have the time to write down how to do a problem 10 different ways.

      In many cases, businesses lose money when projects take too long.