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Could Math Anxiety Become a Thing of the Past?

Math anxiety isn't just a fear of numbers or laziness, it's a measurable emotional reaction—and researchers are working on ways to get rid of it.

My freshman year of high school, my algebra teacher laid into me in front of the entire class for needing a calculator to solve a problem. "You should be able to solve that in your head. I'm sure everyone else in here can," he said. My mild math anxiety was born on that day, and so, despite going on to complete college-level calculus, I've always been able to relate to those who break into a cold sweat at the mere sight of a math book. Thankfully, experts gathered earlier this month at a Learning and the Brain conference hope to get to the root of math anxiety and make it a thing of the past.


It's pretty common in our society to believe that some people are just "math people" who are somehow intrinsically good at finding the cosine of an angle. Interestingly, we don't have the same beliefs about reading. "No one walks around bragging that they can’t read, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say you don’t like math," University of Chicago psychology professor Sian L. Beilock told Education Week.

Math anxiety isn't just a fear of numbers, or, as some people think, academic laziness on the part of students. It's a measurable emotional reaction. Researchers like Beilock have observed an increase in stress indicators in the brain's hypothalamus when college students are told they might have to take a math test.

It also has potential negative effects on our nation's economic viability. Affected students are unlikely to become engineers, scientists, or enter technology fields. And, teachers with math anxiety are more likely to pass it along to their students. Given that the majority of teachers are women who may have internalized gender-based stereotypes that girls are bad at math, it's no wonder that math anxiety continues to disproportionately affects girls. And, when a parent has math anxiety, they're also likely to pass their fears on to their children.

So, do we all need to go to math therapy? Not exactly. A big part of ending the cycle of math anxiety is changing the way teachers are trained to teach math and the way they react to student mistakes. Eugene A. Geist, a professor at Ohio University in Athens helps math teachers lower the anxiety level in classrooms, and encourages educators to focus on the process of learning math instead of simply trying to get students to churn out the right answer.

Geist is on the right track. A classroom culture where students aren't afraid to fail and are encouraged to learn by talking through wrong answers is optimal. Unfortunately, with the advent of high stakes testing, math teachers are under increasing pressure to just drill students. The emphasis is on a student's calculation speed and accuracy, not a Socratic approach to math. Given that test results are used to evaluate individual teachers and schools, that's not the ideal low-stress environment students need to succeed. As researchers learn more about math anxiety—and how to mitigate it—education policy will have to catch up for us to really reap the benefits of those insights.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Silenceofnight

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