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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Maybe the cure to math anxiety is to teach kids math

Timed tests cause math anxiety, according to Jo Boaler, a Stanford math education professor who's been charged with "reckless disregard for accuracy” in an anonymous complaint to Stanford filed in March. Boaler's ideas were used to develop the California Math Framework.


A veteran math teacher, administrator and researcher, Greg Ashman's analysis of Boaler's support for her research is referenced in the complaint.


Ashman believes multiple factors influence math anxiety, and that teachers can lower stress by telling students that tests have low stakes. For example: “This assessment is to help me figure out what I have taught well and what I haven’t done such a good job with and will need to revisit with you.”


He adds that a recently published study of test anxiety in Belgium found that "competence frustration" is a key factor in test anxiety. Not knowing math can be angst-making.


My daughter liked "mad minutes" in elementary school because she knew her math facts fluently. It was a game.


The evidence that timed tests cause anxiety is murky, writes Hechinger's Jill Barshay. "The Science of Math group could find only two experimental studies that have attempted to test the hypothesis and neither concluded that tests produce anxiety," she writes.


Do timed tests make anxious students more anxious? "There’s evidence for and against even within studies," writes Barshay. Nobody's done a long-term study.


The U.S. Department of Education's 2021 guide for teachers "recommends regular timed activities – not necessarily tests – to help children build fluency with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division," she writes. An expert panel found 27 studies to back timed practice in conjunction with other activities.


In one 2013 study, struggling first graders received math tutoring three times a week and were split into two groups.  One played untimed games to reinforce the lessons. The other was subjected to speed practice, where the children worked in groups to try to answer as many math flashcards correctly as possible within 60 seconds. . . . After 16 weeks, the children in the speed practice group had much higher math achievement than the children who had played untimed games.

Fluency "gives children an advantage as they progress through the math curriculum,” said Lynn Fuchs, a Vanderbilt education professor. “In all walks of life, the strongest musicians, the most skillful athletes, they do drills and practice, drill and practice,” said Fuchs.


Sanjana Friedman summarizes the case against Boaler's research on Pirate Wires. Most of the allegations are for misrepresenting other people's research.


Brian Conrad, a professor of mathematics at Stanford, documented misrepresented citations in the math framework, many linked to Boaler’s research, writes Friedman. For example, the framework claims a study (“Burris et al 2006”) showed middle-schoolers learned more in mixed-ability math classes. "But the framework’s authors never tell readers that the Burris study examined the effects of teaching Algebra I to all 8th grade students — exactly the policy the framework, which advocates for delaying Algebra I until high school, argues against," she writes. The framework also doesn't mention students had access to extra math workshops. The "misrepresentation of the Burris study appears nearly directly lifted from a post Boaler wrote for youcubed in 2017."

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4 Comments


dsnecamp
Apr 03

It takes longer for some students to learn math concepts. The anxiety comes from falling hopelessly behind. Students like me needed slower math classes to figure it out.

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Jim Brock
Jim Brock
Apr 02

Math teaches rational thinking. We need more math.

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Apr 02

I remember looking through a recent book of Professor Boaler in a bookstore about a year ago or so. Much of what she wrote in it I actually liked, which surprised me; but when I went through her few brief citations from international mathematical literature, in which I more nearly have some expertise, I found that nearly every claim she made was wrong, was instead a biased misrepresentation of what the evidence more obviously implies; and reading this update makes me suspect this pattern of academic mendacity is intentional, and is rewarded in the modern academia of our formerly meritocratically leading institutions.

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Darren Miller
Darren Miller
Apr 01

I've long believed that the reason some students get anxious about math is because they're not good at it. Tests don't cause extreme anxiety, tests for which you aren't sure you know the material do. If I put a gun to your head and told you to sing the alphabet, you'd still be able to sing the alphabet--because you know it through and through.

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