Mathematical anxiety is the feeling of tension and fear that many people experience when they are asked to calculate a sum. For children, it can lead to behavioral problems during class, as well as physical symptoms such as butterflies in the stomach and a racing heart.
Students with high mathematical anxiety do worse in standardized math tests and school exams. Anxious thoughts interfere with the recall of mathematical related facts and procedures, and also of performing these procedures well. This is often described as the experience of making your mind empty.
Our new research shows that math anxiety not only affects how children do in exams, it also affects their ability to learn new mathematical concepts and procedures in class.
We introduced more than 200 six-year-old schoolchildren in the UK and Italy to maths they had not covered in school before. This included the addition of tens and the use of less than and greater than characters.
In other words, our study shows that students who are anxious about mathematics not only struggle during exams, but that they actually learn less math at school than non-anxious students with the same educational opportunities.
Another important finding from our research concerned the age of the children. Our participants were only six years old. Other studies have found that children at such a young age already experience math anxiety, but there has been debate as to whether this will affect young children’s math performance in any way. Our studies clearly show that math anxiety has an impact at this age.
If mathematical anxiety reduces learning from the very beginning of school, the implication is that mathematical anxiety can lead to cumulative knowledge gaps during the school years. Not surprisingly, students who feel anxious about math can finish school with lower math grades and avoid career choices in math-intensive fields.
But the implications of math anxiety go far beyond school. People who feel anxious about mathematics may also experience difficulties in everyday life, such as making poorer decisions about finances and health.
An example is when people feel uncomfortable interpreting statistics and graphs related to the effects of COVID-19, and still need to make lifestyle choices based on this information.
Other forms of anxiety, as well as procrastination, avoidance of challenges, and low levels of self-esteem and self-esteem are also common among people with mathematical anxiety. Overall, math anxiety can have a strong impact on people’s success and satisfaction.
This requires early assessment and intervention. Yet, just as it is possible to improve math performance in struggling students, it is also possible to overcome math anxiety.
Parents and teachers can transfer negative attitudes and anxiety to math. Some intervention methods focus on increasing parents’ confidence in their own ability to help children learn math and give them ideas for fun math games that can be played at home.
Computer programs and apps are also recommended for practicing math. An advantage of this approach is that computers offer a motivating, attractive and non-judgmental environment to practice some important skills, and they can be used without the contribution of trained professionals.
Other studies suggest that drawing students’ attention to past cases where they succeed in overcoming the challenges of math education can increase self-confidence and lead to more positive attitudes and less anxiety. In fact, high levels of math anxiety are not always associated with low performance levels. The problem is that people with high anxiety levels do not reach their full potential. Practicing math with a tutor can also reduce anxiety.
Although math anxiety is associated with a number of negative consequences, there are many ways for people to cope with their anxiety and avoid these negative results. Still, an even better option is to avoid developing math anxiety altogether. Our research suggests that the work of developing positive attitudes towards mathematics should begin in the first years of school, or even earlier.
This article by Kinga Morsanyi, Associate Professor of Mathematical Cognition, Loughborough University; Carlo Tomasetto, Associate Professor of Developmental and Educational Psychology, University of Bologna; Paddy O’Connor, Associate Professor (Education), Queen’s University Belfast, and Veronica Guardabassi, Researcher in Developmental and Educational Psychology, Università di Bologna, were republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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