Dealing with Math Anxiety
When students are asked to solve a math problem, reports Sarah Sparks in this Education Week article, any level of anxiety gobbles up working memory and interferes with their ability to get the answer. Researchers have found that students with the most interest and potential in math are most affected by anxiety; they can solve math problems when they work in non-stressful conditions, but not when the pressure is on. What causes anxiety? Mentioning gender stereotypes (e.g., girls aren’t as good at math as boys), or telling students that their scores will be compared with those of other students.
Researchers have found that female teachers’ math anxiety rubs off on their female students. In a study of first- and second-grade classrooms, there was no difference in boys’ and girls’ math performance at the beginning of the year, but girls whose teachers had a high level of math anxiety did worse than boys by the end of the year. Girls in these classrooms tended to adopt a stereotypical view of math ability (boys are good at math, girls are good at reading), and the more they believed this, the worse their math achievement. “Teacher math anxiety is really an epidemic,” says Daniel Ansari at the University of Western Ontario. “I think a lot of people go into elementary teaching because they don’t want to teach high-school math or science.”
How can teachers create anxiety-free classrooms? Eugene Geist of Ohio University/ Athens suggests that teachers focus on teaching math processes and not rely on the answers in textbooks. “If I give the answer, you immediately forget about the question,” he says. “If I don’t give you the answer, you will still have questions and you will be thinking about the problem long after.” Constantly referring to the answer key undermines students’ and teachers’ confidence in their own math skills and encourages students to focus on being right over understanding the concepts.
Jody Willis, a California-based neurologist and author, says that it’s vital that students are not afraid of making mistakes in math classes. Teachers have to be able to spot problems with foundational knowledge, and they can do this only if students participate in class and make mistakes.
“‘Math Anxiety’ Explored in Studies” by Sarah Sparks in Education Week, May 18, 2011 (Vol. 30, #31, p. 1, 16) http://www.edweek.org