Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement (PART III)

Students’ prior negative mathematics experiences, their mindsets about the content of mathematics and learning it, and their view of their mathematics problems determine the type of anxiety they exhibit. Remediation and interventions have a better chance of succeeding if the interventionist determines the nature of students’ math anxiety and possible causative or related factors.

Math Anxiety of the Math-Type (or Specific Math Anxiety)
Specific math anxiety is triggered by certain language, concepts, or procedures: for example, difficulty in memorizing multiplication tables when understanding is not there; long-division procedure; estimation when place value and facts have not been mastered; operations on fractions (why multiplications of two fractions may result in smaller numbers than the fractions being multiplied); understanding place value—particularly decimal places (where there is no one’s place); understanding and operations on negative numbers (how addition of two numbers is smaller than the numbers being added); algebraic symbols—the radical sign (one student declared how can a letter be a number, you cannot count with this); certain mathematical terms (how can a number have a value less than 4, e.g., p = 3.14159265358…, if it is going on for ever and it is not exact; x ≤ 4, how can any thing be equal to and smaller than something at the same time, etc.

These students are not able to come to terms with what their intuitive thinking tells them and what the new concept calls for. The conflict between their intuitive understanding of the mathematics ideas and the new mathematics concept creates a dilemma in their minds—a situation of cognitive dissonance. They may not have a strong conceptual framework and/or this particular concept to resolve the cognitive dissonance. The trigger for the resulting anxiety may be a symbol, a certain procedure, a concept, or a mathematical term. For some reason, that specific mathematics experience creates a mental block in the process of learning the new mathematics concept. Then, they doubt their competence in mathematics and, therefore, distrust mathematics. They find it difficult to go any further, give up or develop an antipathy towards the concept or procedure. Moreover, they declare incompetence in specific aspects of mathematics (self-diagnosis—I am terrible in fractions, equations, etc.). At this juncture of their math experience, fear of mathematics is the result and not the cause of their negative experiences with mathematics.

However, in some cases, since students remember the times they were successful and felt that they were good at mathematics; they do not fear all of mathematics. They have tried to understand that particular part of mathematics but now, as a result of unsuccessful and frustrating experiences, have developed anxiety about a specific aspect of mathematics. A particular concept becomes the locus of their math anxiety.

The reaction of persons with the specific math anxiety is also specific. When they seek help they have specific goals about mathematics and have specific need and their reactions about mathematics are also very specific. For example, they are apt to say:

“My teacher started doing geometry in class and I have always had difficulty in geometry. Can you help me go over this part of the course?”

“I have to take this exam. I always do poorly on exams, can you help me in passing this exam?”

“I used to be good in math up to sixth grade, but now with algebra I am lost.”

“I like geometry but I get lost in algebra, particularly the radical numbers and expressions.”

“I like arithmetic and algebra, but geometry is something else.”

“I had a really bad math teacher in eighth grade, it was all downhill after that.”

“I understand what you are saying, but I don’t see the meaning, I am sorry.”

“Calculus is so abstract. Can you show me this concretely?”

“Why can’t you explain the way my sixth grade teacher used to do?”

“If my sixth grade teacher had explained this material this way, I would have learned this material better.”

“I always got into arguments with the geometry teacher. I could not see the meaning of invisible points and lines.”

Key phrases by such students are: “Sorry!” and “I tried my best.” Their reactions are mild and of disappointment rather than of fear and inadequacy.

Many of these students are willing to try. They believe that if proper methods, materials, and examples are given, they can learn mathematics. These students complain about the teacher, the textbook, the class size, the composition of the class, anything outside of them. It could be anything related to their mathematics experience. As soon as that particular thing is changed, they feel they will be able to learn mathematics.

Whereas people with global math anxiety generally avoid taking mathematics courses, students with specific math anxiety will register for math courses, but if one of these conditions are not met, they may use that as an excuse for dropping the course. In that sense, they are easier to teach. They are looking for somebody to break the cycle of failure in that specific aspect of mathematics. They are eager to talk to math teachers willing to listen. They are not particularly afraid of math or math teachers, but they do not want to repeat the same experience of failure. They need help, and an effective math teacher can usually help them.

In the previous post we mentioned that social myths have created conditions for the prevalence of people with global math anxiety. It would seem that there are more people with global math anxiety, and that used to be the case only a few decades ago. Today however, specific math anxiety is much more prevalent than global math anxiety. There are several reasons for this phenomenon:

  • A student may understand the concept on the surface level but may not truly understand the concept or procedure;
  • A student may not practice the concept or procedure enough to the level of mastery so easily forgets the material. In the long run, the lack of mastery of nitty-gritty aspects of math is the source of the problem. Practicing problems of different types relating to the same concept helps students see the subtleties in the concept, and applications of the concept becomes easier. That builds stamina for mathematics learning.
  • When important developmental concepts are not taught properly, students may not connect concepts properly, which means every new concept looks novel and unrelated, thereby creating mental blocks in the process of learning.
  • When transitions of concepts are not handled properly, students may have difficulty learning concepts. For example, the transition from addition and subtraction (one dimensional—linear) to multiplication and division, is not just the extension of repeated addition/subtraction to skip counting for multiplication/division but is abstracting repeated addition to groups and developing it to a two-dimensional model of multiplication (as an array and area of a rectangle). It is a cognitive jump that requires effective and efficient concrete and pictorial models, language, and conceptual framework.
  • Specific math anxiety can occur if mathematics is taught procedurally, without the proper base of language and conceptual development. Language serves as the container for concepts and concepts are the structure of a procedure. Without the integration of the three, students have to make extra effort to understand and master a concept. This takes a toll on their enthusiasm and motivation for mathematics learning.

These habits and inclinations do not help students learn mathematics easily and sufficiently well. They do poorly on examinations and tests and feel anxious about math because they lack the practice in integrating the language, concept and procedures. Timely help from a sympathetic mathematics teacher who uses efficient and effective methods of teaching that motivate these students to practice is key for improving math achievement and lowering math anxiety and thus breaking the cycle.

The first step, in addressing specific mathematics anxiety is to identify the specific area of mathematics deficiency or where the students faced the first hurdle in mathematics.

The second step is placement in an appropriate math class, instructional group, or matching with the right tutor with an individual educational plan. Then the teacher should develop a plan to attack first the student’s perceived and real incompetence/difficulty in mathematics. The perceived incompetence is often the result of negative experiences. Then the remedial help that they receive should begin with the focus on one’s deficient areas of mathematics and create success using vertical acceleration.

Vertical acceleration is taking a student from a lower level concept (where the student is functioning) to a grade level concept (where the student should be) by developing a vertical relationship (a direct path) from the lower concept to the higher concept. An example is when a student is having problems in fractions or solving algebraic equations because she does not have the mastery of multiplication tables. The teacher should focus on one multiplication table, say the table of 4, and, she should help the student to derive the entries on the multiplication table and learn the commutative, associative and distributive properties of multiplication using effective and generalizable model (area model) and efficient materials (e.g., Cuisenaire rods). Then she should help the student to practice the table of 4 using Multiplication Ladder[1] for 4 and then master the extended facts (×40, ×400, .4, etc.). Then the teacher should practice (a) multiplication of a multi-digit number by 4 (e.g., 12345×4, etc.) and division of a multi-digit by 4 (78695 ÷ 4, etc.), (b) form equivalent fractions and simplify them where the numerators and denominators are multiples of 4, and (c) solving one-step equations (e.g., 4x = 36; 40x = 4800, etc.). When this skill/concept is mastered, it should be connected to the current mathematics. In the next session, the focus should be another table. Supplying students with multiplication tables and using calculators is not a solution.

When a student feels successful in one small area, then related metacognition helps manage learning and then math anxiety. Soon, it begins to disappear. When one provides successful experiences in mathematics at some level (even at a lower level than the chronologically expected mathematics complexity) to this type of student, he/she may lose the anxiety and feel better about mathematics and him/herself.

For this reason, I begin work with these students (say a ninth grader with gaps and anxiety) with simple algebraic concepts, integrating the corresponding arithmetic concepts or taking a simple arithmetic concept and relating it to algebraic concepts with the help of concrete materials and patterns. This process develops in students the feeling that they are capable of learning mathematics and begins to remove their fear. It is not uncommon to hear: “Is that all there is to algebra?” We then build on this newly acquired confidence by taking digressions to make-up for the arithmetic deficiencies by providing successful mathematics experiences using vertical acceleration techniques that result in further building of confidence and reduction in mathematics anxiety. Vertical acceleration is applicable in both global and specific math anxiety situations and in the case of all developmental mathematics concepts.

Math Anxiety and Working Memory
Working memory[2] is a kind of ‘mental scratchpad’ that allows us to ‘work’ with whatever information is temporarily flowing through our consciousness. It is of special importance when we have to do math problems where we have to juggle numbers, apply strategies, execute operations in computations, or conceptualizing mathematical ideas. For example, during computations (e.g., long-division, solving simultaneous linear equations, etc.), we have to keep some of the outcomes of these operations in our mind. These processes take place in different components of the working memory. Increased math anxiety with it demands on working memory reduces working memory’s functions that in turn affects performance. The cycle of poor performance and math anxiety ensues. However, the effect of math anxiety on working memory is limited to math intensive tasks. Thus, the role of working memory and its related component parts is a significant factor in accounting for the variance in math performance.

Just like general anxiety, math anxiety affects both aspects of working memory—visual and verbal, but there is no relationship between math anxiety and processing speed, memory span, or selective attention. However, in the case of mathematics, the effect on visual component of the working memory is more pronounced. Worries and self-talk associated with math anxiety disrupts and consumes a person’s working memory resources, which students could otherwise use for task execution.

Although there are similarities in the effect of general and math anxieties, math anxiety functions differently than general anxiety and other types of specific behavioral anxieties. Whereas general anxiety affects all aspects of human functions to differing degrees, there is no or only a limited relationship between math anxiety and performance on a non-math task.

There is an inverse relationship between math anxiety and performance on the math portion of working memory intensive math tasks. One reason for this is that math anxiety is directly related to the belief that mathematics seeks perfection (e.g., there is only one answer to a problem and there is one way of arriving at it) and there is a fear associated with the perceived negative evaluation when one gets a wrong answer.

It is true that people who are anxious in general often get test anxiety, but a lot of people who are not particularly anxious can still develop stress around tests in subjects like mathematics. What is actually going on when a student stresses out over a test? The moment an anxious student begins a test, the mind becomes flooded with concerns about the possibility of failure. Between the worry and the need to solve the problems on the test, a competition ensues for attention and working memory resources. That divided attention leads to a stalemate—called “choking.” The impact of this is the shutting down of the brain to that task.

This choking can be particularly visible in younger students. High school students may respond more like adults; they may find and use excuses for this shutting down—lack of preparation, poor teaching, irritability, lack of sleep, too early in the morning, too late in the day, etc. Young children just shut down—may start crying, won’t write much, withdraw from the activity, get angry, etc. They just get overwhelmed and don’t know how to deal with it.

Interestingly, due to anxiety, the fear response appears in both low- and high-performing students. However, the impact on students is different. It doesn’t matter how much the student actually knows, but rather how well he or she feels they have the resources to meet the demands of the test and how tightly the performance on the test is tied to the child’s sense of identity. Students who see themselves as “math people” but perform poorly on a math test actually repress their memories of the content of the class, similar to the “motivated forgetting” seen around traumatic events like death. The effort to block out a source of anxiety can actually make it harder to remember events and content around the event. So the student may feel, “I’m supposed to be a math person, but I’m really stressed out, so maybe I’m not as big a math person as I thought I was.” That stress becomes a major threat to the student. So, most surprisingly, math anxiety harms more the higher-achieving students who typically have the most working memory resources.

Changing a student’s mindset about the anxiety itself could boost test performance. For instance, students can be trained to reinterpret physical symptoms—a racing pulse or sweaty palms, say—as signs of excitement, not fear. Those students have better test performance and lower stress than students who interpret their symptoms as fear. Experiencing a sense of threat and a sense of challenge actually are not that different from each other. Ultimately, by changing one’s interpretation, one is not going from high anxiety to low anxiety but from high anxiety to optimal anxiety.

On mathematics tests and examinations, however, it is difficult to separate the effect of test taking anxiety from the mathematics anxiety; thus there is a compound impact. Specifically, for example, there is an effect of math anxiety on the SAT’s total score and individual SAT English, Math, and Science scores. In this case, the impact of test taking anxiety is a factor. A moderate amount of anxiety (irrespective of focus) has a positive impact on performance. For example, low math anxious individuals have higher SAT total and Math scores than both moderately and highly math anxious individuals. High math anxious individuals have low mathematics scores.

Although math anxiety begins to manifest more during the upper elementary school grades, studies show that younger children are beginning to demonstrate math anxiety. Some students report worry and fear about doing math as early as first grade. Research shows that some high-achieving students experience math anxiety at a very young age — a problem, if not treated, that can follow them throughout their lives, and they become underachieving gifted and talented students.

Studies have also found that among the highest-achieving students, about half have medium to high math anxiety. Still, math anxiety is more common among low-achieving students, but it does not impact their performance to the same levels, particularly on less demanding, simpler numeracy problems. Their performance is more affected by math anxiety on higher mathematics—multiplicative reasoning, proportional reasoning (fractions, decimals, percents, etc.), algebraic thinking (integers, algebra, etc.), and geometry.

A high degree of math anxiety undermines performance of otherwise successful students, placing them almost half a school year behind their less anxious peers, in terms of math achievement. High achieving students want to utilize efficient and multiple strategies that place higher demands on working memory and if these strategies are not properly taught, high achieving students begin to do poorly.

Less talented younger students with lower working memory are not impacted by math anxiety in the same way as it affects the students with high working memory. This is because less talented students develop (or taught, particularly, in remedial special education situations) simpler and inefficient ways of dealing with mathematics problems, such as counting on their fingers, on number line, or concrete materials. For example, they are taught that addition is counting up and subtraction is counting down, multiplication is skip-counting forward and division is skip-counting backward.

Counting is a less demanding mathematics activity on working memory when the counting objects are present—counting blocks, fingers, number-line, etc. However, when these students do not use these materials and want to do it without them in their head, then the same task is a heavily demanding working memory activity. However, counting mentally occupies the working memory completely and does not leave any space for higher order thinking or strategy learning. For example, to find the sum of 8 + 7 requires a student, whose only strategy, to hold two sets of numbers: 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 and the matching numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. These 14 numbers fill the working memory space completely. Thus, these students have difficulty learning efficient strategies as they place more demands on working memory. In the absence of efficient strategies, they hardly achieve fluency without paying a heavy price on rote memorization.

Ironically, because these lower-performing students do not use working memory resources to solve math problems, their performance does not suffer when they are worried. However, their performance on demanding, complex and longer performance goes down as they demand the involvement of working memory and math anxiety undermines it. Because if these limitations, these students do not progress very high on the mathematics skill/concept continuum.

Academic abilities, size of working memory, and fear of mathematics interact with each other. Sometimes, due to mathematics anxiety even the higher cognitive ability and working memory are undermined. Such interaction affects the high achieving students more than low achieving students. Higher achieving students apt to apply higher order strategies in mathematics and these strategies demand more from working memory and math anxiety may undermine it.

Teachers who give choices in their classrooms lower the anxiety of students. Mathematics classrooms where students have the flexibility to choose some “must do” each day, as well as some “may dos” offer opportunities for them to succeed and make mistakes. Tasting success at the same time as learning to make mistakes is a sure way to improve learning skills. They should also have the opportunity to work with a group or alone. A more open-ended approach allows students to play to their strengths – choosing the problems that they are most comfortable with. This encourages them to stretch themselves a little, try out new things, and worry less.

[1] Improving Fluency Using Multiplication Ladders (Sharma, 2008).

[2] See previous posts on Working Memory and Mathematics Learning.

Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement (PART III)

Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement (Part II)

Stories and legends told by human beings through the ages to explain our abilities and the acquisition of abilities shape our relationships with learning. Whereas entering into the learning process of language, art, or music seems natural (almost unconscious and involuntary), formal teaching and learning is human and has to be organized. The message and meaning of myths about learning evolve. Over the last few centuries, as quantification has entered ordinary life, myths about its learning have become part of life too.

The myths that we inherit about a subject shape our thoughts and our journey in acquiring the knowledge and competence in it. Many times, individuals need courage to get out of those mythical ideas that we have formed to be truly open to learning.

In mathematics learning, as children we come to the subject matter without preconceived ideas, but very quickly we are shaped by the ideas and myths about mathematics learning our caregivers consciously and/or unconsciously share with us. Then we struggle between meaning making from our real experiences about learning math or forming ideas about it and reading these experiences in the shadow of imparted myths. Early on, many students, when they do not have positive experiences or do not have skills to make meaning from their own experiences, succumb to the prevailing myths about math learning.

In spite of many efforts by mathematics educators, psychologists and social reformers, the myths about mathematics learning and achievement persist. These myths color students’ mindsets about mathematics and its learning. Even administrators who are well-meaning and able but not well-versed in mathematics perpetuate these myths by emphasizing gimmicks and easy solutions to the problem of mathematics achievement. Moreover, even the experts in learning assumed that ability to learn (particularly mathematics) was a matter of intelligence and dedicated smarts and therefore did not study the issue. They assumed, it seems, that either people had the skill of learning or they did not. For them, intelligence –and thus the ability to gain mastery—was an immutable trait.

Yes, for learning mathematics, one needs some cognitive abilities, but one also needs to engage in the process of learning. The field of learning is rife with vague terms: studying, practice, know, mastery, etc. For example, does studying mean reading the mathematics textbook? Does it mean doing sample problems? Does it mean memorizing? Does practice mean repeating the same skill over and over again (like memorizing flash-cards, doing mad minutes)? Does practice require detailed feedback? What kind of feedback? Should practice be solving hard problems or easy problems? Should practice be intense or small chunks? There are so many imprecise terms, which feed into the myths a person selects. Effective teachers help students to achieve freedom from these myths.

Myth 1
Mathematics ability is inherent. You have to be born with a mathematical brain.
People, children as well as adults, who are successful in mathematics are not usually born that way. Many individuals with mathematics anxiety tend to believe that you either have the ability or you don’t, rather than assuming that your skills and abilities are the result of study and practice. When students’ mentors—teachers, parents, sports coaches, successful and intelligent people brag about not being good at math, not being numbers people, they reinforce disinterest in mathematics.

Learning math, like learning in general, takes knowledgeable teachers with high expectations, willing students, and, most importantly, a great deal of time and practice that result in success during each session. A growing number of studies shows that learning is a process, a method, a system of understanding. It is an activity that requires focus, planning, and reflection, and when people know how to learn, they acquire mastery in much more effective ways.

Learning math is much like learning a language—both need a great deal of exposure, “gestation” time, and with usage learners get better. Learning mathematics takes time, effective practice, and help in making connections. The symbols and notations make up the rules of grammar and the terminology is the vocabulary. Doing math homework is like practicing the conversation of math. Becoming fluent (and staying fluent) in math requires years of practice and continuous use. That is true about any field. To be good at anything we need to practice. Learning mathematics is a dedicated, engaged process; it is not a spectator sport. It is not about memorizing facts (static data); it is more about what we do with that data (look for patterns) and how we think better (convert patterns into strategies) by the help of that data (learning).

Myth 2
Mathematics is a very difficult subject to learn.
Many believe that only the very few can do mathematics, that it is difficult to learn mathematics. It is not that mathematics learning is difficult. Many times, it is the method of teaching, efficient models, and effective language usage by the teacher and the students that are the key to learning mathematics. Learning and teaching methods affect the outcomes in every field of learning. For example, to make sense of a concept and to make connections with other concepts, the teacher should use efficient language and effective models to conceptualize and should ask a great deal of enabling questions to help internalize the learning.

Effective strategies and practice boost performance from baseball and tennis to balancing equations and proving theorems. On the other hand, when mathematics teaching is approached with an emphasis on procedures and memorization and when concepts and topics are taught in a fragmented manner, students see mathematics as a difficult subject.

Apart from effective teaching, the mathematics curriculum has to be well orchestrated at each grade level. To engage all students and take many more to higher levels, it is important that school systems emphasize (a) articulation and mastery of non-negotiable skills at each grade level, (b) common definition of knowing a concept or procedure by everyone concerned with mathematics education, (c) knowing the trajectory of developmental milestones in mathematics learning, and (d) the most effective and efficient pedagogy that respects the diverse needs of all children.

Many teachers feed into the myth about the difficulty of mathematics when they begin a topic with statements such as: “Fractions are difficult.” “Algebra is not for everyone.” “Irrational numbers are truly irrational, they generally do not make sense.” These kinds of statements make mathematics look difficult and then it becomes truly difficult.

Mathematics is the integration of language, concepts, and procedures. It is the study of patterns. As Godfrey Harold Hardy (mathematician) said: A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. Statements such as Hardy’s can serve as counter narratives to the myth of the difficulty of mathematics.

Another way to counter the myth is when teachers show students how it took many mathematicians a significant amount of time to develop the formulas and equations that they are attributed with creating and that they are studying now in middle and high schools. Teachers need to show that, as in any other field of endeavor, most mathematicians, even though they made mistakes, persisted in the process.

Students should be encouraged to learn that mistakes are part of learning and creating mathematics. Mistakes and efforts literally improve the cognitive abilities that are needed for any learning and, therefore, mathematics. Students struggle to find an immediate solution when solving problems and they give up so easily, but many mathematicians took many years to solve a single problem. This shows students that math is not about speed but rather devotion and perseverance. A teacher’s selection of a problem and the methods of attacking the problem should be well-thought out so that they begin to take interest.

Myth 3
You cannot be creative and be good at math.
When people asked what I did for living, I would hesitate to admit that I teach or do mathematics. As soon as I announced this to a person at a party, for example, most times the response was: “Math was never my cup of tea. I am right hemispheric person.” “I am a creative person. I like creativity.” “I am humanities and people person.” “Math is not interesting. I wanted to be in an interesting field.”

Can you be an artist, writer, or musician and be good at math too? Yes! Math is found throughout literature, art, music, film, philosophy, and it is essential to many “creative” fields. Although the structure of mathematics is created by man, every aspect of life can be modeled by mathematics principles. It is pervasive in nature, society, and all edifices. Mathematics is constantly making new tools that help all aspects of human endeavor. Its collection of tools shaped the imaginations of Leonardo DaVinci, Mozart, M.C. Escher, and Lewis Carroll. These are just a few of the artists who used math extensively in their works.

Geometry is the right foundation of all painting. – Albrecht Dürer (artist)

I am interested in mathematics only as a creative art. …Mathematics is the study of patterns. – GH Hardy (mathematician)

The mathematician’s best work is art, a high perfect art, as daring as the most secret dreams of imagination, clear and limpid. Mathematical genius and artistic genius touch one another. – G Mittag-Leffler (mathematician)

In addition to increasing student interest in learning math, a deeper understanding of how concepts were developed and which mathematicians were responsible for them adds content knowledge. Explaining and showing how the Babylonians and Greeks worked to get more precise values of pi only gives teachers additional credibility as masters of content.

Incorporating the history of math also allows for an interdisciplinary approach to teaching. As we move from a STEM philosophy to a STEAM philosophy (including the arts), the history of math shows us a relationship between music and mathematics, in particular with Pythagoras, as well as between art and mathematics, such as in geometry. There are many ways to incorporate the history of math into your classroom.

Myth 4
Mathematical insight comes instantly if it comes at all.
Most people have an incorrect conception of creativity and insight because they think of them as spontaneous and automatic. But ideas, insights, and creativity in all areas most of the time come after a person devoted time thinking about them. The second wind in running comes only after one has run for sometime. When one has basic skills, thought about an idea, and then continues to think about it, one begins to make connections, see relationships, and get insights. For this reason, we need to move from thinking about why acquire new skills and knowledge to practicing that is more dynamic, productive and efficient.

The learning cycle in mathematics, as in other subjects, is predictable: it begins with information gathering, and we need some basic skills for this. Then, with discussion and exchange of ideas, we convert this information into knowledge. With application and usage in multiple settings (intra-mathematical, interdisciplinary, and extra-curricular applications) we convert our knowledge into insights. And over a period of time, with deeper engagement with the subject, we might even become wise (we may have expert thinking skills or ability to solve unstructured problems) in that area. For tough unstructured problems one begins to look for analogous thinking in other fields. Imagination and creativity become prominent as soon as we cross the threshold of information gathering to conversion into knowledge. 

Myth 5
Mathematics is a male domain—women are not as good at math as men.
During the last twenty-five years, a great deal of effort and progress have been made in recruiting a large number of girls and women into mathematics courses and the field of mathematics. However, the myth of mathematics as a male domain still keeps many women out of the field. Even today, young girls may not be encouraged to investigate the world in the same way that boys are. The type of games and toys we give boys and girls to play and the type of language we use with the children is different. Boys are given blocks, science kits, and construction tools and are encouraged to explore, represent, and express their world in more mathematical ways than are girls. If more girls were given the same support and opportunities that boys have to excel at mathematics, there would be many more high-achieving girls and women in mathematics.

Myth 6
I am not going to use mathematics, so I don’t need to learn it.
Most teachers want to answer this question by giving “pie in the sky” kinds of applications of mathematics. Which is not difficult to do. Application of mathematics is the real story of human civilization. However, the message behind this question is: “I have never succeeded in mathematics. I do not know the previous content, so how can I learn this new content.” When teachers are not able to provide success in simple mathematics, they create a population who is going to ask the question: “Where am I going to use it?” every time they introduce a new concept. Interestingly, few successful students ever ask this question, and definitely not in the tone that this question is generally asked. My own approach is to take a simple concept that students find difficult and then provide success in that concept. Then repeat this many times. It is impossible to learn if one does not want to learn, so to gain expertise, we have to see the skills and knowledge as valuable. What is more, we have to create meaning. Learning is a matter of making sense of something.




Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement (Part II)

Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement (Part I)

Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I assure you that mine are greater. Albert Einstein

I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion. Muhammad Ali

Learning mathematics takes a special kind of courage and enthusiasm for the subject, and to be successful in it, one needs effective teachers. Effective teachers prevent failures while poor teaching may create them. Mathematics is a major hurdle for many elementary school students, particularly when teachers rely on drilling and memorization.  Failures in early mathematics can develop into full-fledged anxiety and may result in avoidance of mathematics and more failure.

For a significant number people, young and adult, the failure to feel successful and consistent lowered achievement in mathematics turn into mathematics anxiety, ranging from mild to severe. Math anxiety is the strongest predictor of both applied and basic math performance. Math anxiety may continue at the work place and in higher education.

In addition to socio-cultural (e.g., educational) factors, differences in students’ mathematics achievement are also due to attitude, motivation, language and intellectual abilities (e.g., executive function skills). Learning difficulties, disorders, and mathematics disabilities, like dyscalculia, often arise as a result of issues with cognitive and executive functioning. However, some students experience failure in mathematics due to environmental/social factors only (e.g., inefficient teaching, lowered expectations).

A pertinent question related to mathematics anxiety is whether mathematics anxiety causes poor mathematics performance, or whether poor mathematics performance elicits mathematics anxiety.

Executive Function
Numerical skills are important for success with meaningful problem solving, higher order thinking and higher mathematics, but other cognitive factors and executive skills (domain-specific and domain-general) also play an important role. Some of these critical skills include: (a) Working memory—holding and manipulating information in one’s mind, (b) Inhibition—ability to suppress distracting information and unwanted responses, selecting effective strategies/procedures, and using overlearned strategies wisely, and (c) Shifting—the ability to flexibly switch attention between different tasks—language, multiple concepts, strategies and multiple procedures involved have also been implicated in mathematics achievement.

Executive function skills are critical at every stage of mathematics learning: from language processing for decision-making, monitoring, and controlling emotions, thought, and action—and then these abilities are required for planning and assessing one’s actions (What mathematical operation to choose in this problem? e.g., long division or prime factorization, etc.), attention (What is the role of these symbols and words here? What is the relationship between them?), and self-control and perseverance (What do I know here? What else can I do here?). These processes[1] allow us to respond flexibly to a mathematics problem or concept and to engage in deliberate, goal-directed, thought and action.

Executive functions also affect processing skills. The term processing disorder is an umbrella term covering a continuum from auditory processing to language processing—from acoustic/central auditory processing, to linguistic-phonemic, to decoding, to meaning within language.

An auditory processing disorder will impact language processing and therefore language related aspects of mathematics such as: conceptualization (e.g., 2 × 3 can be read as (i) 2 groups of 3, (ii) 2 repeatedly added 3 times, (iii) a 2 by 3 array, and (iv) area of a 2 by 3 rectangle; ⅔×¾ is read as ⅔ of ¾, and the fraction, ¾ can be read as: (i) three-fourth/three-fourths, (ii) 3 out of 4 equal parts, (iii) 3 divided by 4, (iv) the ratio of 3 is to 4, (v) 3 groups of ¼, or (vi) ¼ repeated 4 times), of and problem solving. A child may have language processing difficulty in varying degrees of severity. Such a demand of language in mathematics creates difficulties, and with math anxiety the language processing is further compromised.

Math anxiety compromises executive functions, contributing to difficulty in learning mathematics, thereby lowered achievement, and more mathematics anxiety. Math anxiety affects students’ intellectual factors such as learning styles, persistence, working memory, and organization.

Brain research shows that anxiety makes learning harder because it activates the amygdala and the limbic system and pulls processing away from the pre-frontal cortex.  If a student who makes a mistake stays calm, his brain will stay in a mode to learn, whereas if a student freaks out with a stress response at each mistake or unfamiliar answer, his brain will be less able to process the incoming information or make connections between different pieces of information both new and old.  This can create a spiral: General anxiety —> making errors or lack of understanding —> math anxiety —> more mistakes or less understanding—> greater anxiety —> poor performance —> math anxiety.

Math Anxiety
Mathematics anxiety is a state of discomfort and helplessness around the performance of mathematical tasks, and is generally measured using self-report trait anxiety questionnaires or can be observed by mathematics educators. On one hand, there is broad consensus that presence of mathematics anxiety is linked to poor math performance. On the other, poor mathematics performance is the result of math anxiety. Thus, debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics activity is either the cause of or an outcome of underachievement in mathematics.

Mathematics anxiety is a child’s emotional reaction to negative mathematics experiences, an intense feeling of helplessness about quantity. This is a global phenomenon. Even in countries where students on the average do better than most countries, there are students who are anxious about mathematics. Math anxiety is present in many students poorly performing in mathematics, but even many high performing students exhibit math anxiety. In cases of high-performing students, math anxiety makes a major impact on their performance. High achieving students are more fearful of poor performance, and this may translate into math anxiety. But, it is the feeling of helplessness about mathematics that grips a large percent of students from elementary school to adulthood. Math anxiety is a serious and pervasive problem, especially in the middle and high school and college setting.

In the earlier stage, math anxiety may indicate something is not right in a child’s mathematics learning. At this stage a child may not have internalized the mathematics anxiety. However, once math anxiety begins to be internalized, it undermines child’s self-esteem, and then it is a causative factor for poor mathematics achievement. Early math anxiety, if not treated, may lead to a cycle in which fear of math interferes with learning math that exerts an increasing cost to math achievement by changed attitude and motivation towards math, curtailing aspirations, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence. This may lead students to delay or stop taking math courses, limiting their educational opportunities.

Students experience math anxiety in many forms and degrees, from a feeling of mild tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and solving mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations to freezing up during a math exam/test and avoiding anything having to do with quantity. Symptoms may be physical or psychological and may include:

  • Physical: Nausea, shortness-of-breath, sweating, heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, fidgeting, lack of attention, avoiding direct eye contact, etc.
  • Psychological: Short-term memory loss, feeling of panic, paralysis of thought, mental disorganization, loss of self-confidence, negative self-talk, helplessness, math task avoidance, isolation (thinking you are the only one who feels this way), etc.

In many cases, math anxiety is a unique kind of anxiety; for example, there is increased heart rate when people are tested on math but not on other academic areas. However, math anxiety is not restricted to tests or classroom settings, people develop severe avoidance of situations involving quantitative facts and/or reasoning and formal mathematics. They may not choose careers involving application of mathematics even if cognitively they are capable. There is overlap between math anxiety and other general types of anxiety, especially related to test taking.

Math anxiety has a variety of sources. Its development is tied to social factors such as a teachers’ and parents’ anxiety about their own math ability and cognitive skills or individual factors such as students’ own quantitative and spatial competencies. All those factors that have a negative influence on mathematics achievement are potential factors for the development of math anxiety.

Students can develop mathematics anxiety by the presence of teacher anxiety, societal, educational or environmental factors, innate characteristics of mathematics, failure and the influence of early-school experiences of mathematics.

Types Of Math Anxiety
Three types of math anxiety are identified by the factors that may cause them or by the nature of their manifestations. They are:

  • Math type (Specific Math Anxiety) is caused by mental blocks in the process of learning math and related to specific mathematics language, concept, or procedure. Generally, it relates to a difficulty or negative experience with one of the key developmental milestones—number concept, number relationships (arithmetic facts), place value, fractions, integers, algebraic or spatial thinking.
  • Socio-cultural type (Global Math Anxiety) is the result of socio-cultural factors. It relates to socio-cultural conditions that may influence a learner in forming negative attitudes about and aversion towards mathematics once they experience difficulties in executing mathematics tasks.
  • Handicap type is caused by some physical or mental handicaps.

These types are generalizations of cases. Sometimes one finds the presence of each, and other times the math anxiety may be because of the integration of more than one. To illustrate the three types of math anxieties, below one example of each reflects general principles of a type of math anxiety.

Example of Math Type (Specific Math Anxiety). Ms. Gamble had a master’s degree in humanities from a university and had an excellent academic record. After graduating she worked for an insurance company, taught at a school and finally decided to become a lawyer, so she wanted to take the law board examinations. She asked a friend, a professor of mathematics at the university[2] to help her with the math/quantitative reasoning portion of the law board exams. They had one or two sessions a week for tutorials. Most of these sessions were successful, but at times, she became irrational about math tasks. She would throw down her pencil and say things like, “You just don’t understand me. I can’t stand these things any more. It does not make any sense.” She would become visibly angry and upset. She would become quite anxious.

The professor started exploring the reasons behind her unpredictable behavior about mathematics. The professor ruled out any socio-cultural factor because she was very independent, assertive and knew what she was doing. She had not accepted female conditioning to the point of dependence, non-assertion and helplessness. She was intelligent, well educated and handled most of the math she was learning quite well. Finally, it became clear to him that anytime he tried to make her do problems involving the radical sign “√” and exponents, she had fits of math anxiety. Otherwise, she was quite comfortable with math and learned well. Somehow, she was uncomfortable with square roots and the radical sign. The radical sign and related concepts had become a mental block in her efforts to learn math. She had difficulty understanding how one could have an exponent less than a whole number, and she had difficulty conceptualizing the concept.

Example of Socio-Cultural Type (Global Math Anxiety). Ms. Cook needed to pass a required math course to graduate with a liberal arts degree. She put the math course off till her last semester at the university. She finally decided on taking an elementary course called Topics in Mathematics, designed especially for liberal arts majors. Soon she had problems in the course. She claimed: “Nothing made sense, I did not understand anything.” She dreaded coming to class and always felt inadequate—“stupid.” She did not take the first quiz, avoided the class and avoided the teacher. One day, the teacher saw her in the university cafeteria and asked her what was wrong, why did she not take the quiz. Rather hesitantly, she said, “Math makes me sick, I don’t need math, people are right math is not for girls. I cannot do math.”

Then, with tears in her eyes, she told the professor how her elementary school teacher used to tell her “You need to work hard. You should get help from your father every night to review the material and do the homework.” Anytime she had difficulty in arithmetic, the teacher would say: “Did you ask your dad?” She did not have a dad around. She lived with her mother—a single parent. When she asked her mother for help, her mother got angry with her and the teacher, and her mother told the teacher, “Why are you doing this to my daughter and me? I never learned this stuff in school. You know as well as I do that math is not for girls. She will be fine without it.” Since then Ms. Cook avoided math with the belief that math was not for girls.

Example of Handicap Type. John, a bright young man, was crippled in a car accident. He registered in a linear algebra course at the university. John read the first test and thought, “This looks like a fair and easy test. I am going to do well.” But after about half an hour, his face became red, he began to perspire profusely as he tried one problem after another, and he looked sick. The professor asked if he was well and informed him that he could arrange a make-up test. John said he was all right and just made some mistakes somewhere and the answers he was getting were not checking out. The professor knew that even though John was confined to the wheelchair, he had enjoyed being in the class and worked hard.

When the professor corrected the test, he noticed that John had poor handwriting—a clear case of dysgraphia. He had difficulty rounding up letters and numbers like O, 0, 9, and 6. His writing showed that words, sentences, and expressions were a mixture of upper and lower case letters. Numbers were mixed and illegible; it was not possible to distinguish whether John was writing 6 or 0. Later in his office, the professor pointed this out to John and suggested that he should do his test on a computer. With this arrangement John did well in the course.

Handicaps may be of two types: physical handicaps and cognitive handicaps. Not every handicapping condition results in poor math performance or math anxiety. But, in some situations they may cause learning disabilities/difficulties in learning mathematics. Learning disabilities and some physical handicaps, generally, may affect some of the prerequisite skills necessary for mathematics learning. These prerequisite skills are: (a) the ability to follow sequential directions, (b) pattern analysis—pattern recognition, extension, creation and usage, (c) spatial orientation/space organization, (d) visualization, (e) estimation, (e) deductive reasoning, and (f) inductive reasoning. The absence of any or more of these skills affects mathematics achievement, and the lowered achievement may create math anxiety.

Today, the law requires that we do everything possible to facilitate the physically handicapped and learning disabled to provide access to a quality learning experience by providing appropriate accommodations and a least restrictive learning environment without compromising the standards of mastery and competence. To comply with the law, it is therefore important to recognize and address math anxiety.

Global Math Anxiety Caused by Socio-Cultural Factors
Math anxiety of the type experienced by Ms. Cook is caused by socio-cultural factors. This type of math anxiety is not about any specific or particular concept or procedure in mathematics. There is a global negative emotional reaction to any thing mathematical. Such a student may have general anxiety to start with—may have an overall anxious personality, worrying about things in general. But, the anxiety is exacerbated and manifested more profoundly in mathematics classrooms if the teaching is not appropriate and other sociological factors come into play.

Some of these individuals may experience failure in mathematics and also in other academic areas, but they admit to having anxiety only in mathematics because in mathematics students feel they are required (student perception) to give exact answers. This perceptual demand brings out the underlying anxiety to the forefront and converts into math anxiety. The anxiety is triggered whenever a student is asked to respond to specific information—facts, formulas. The subject could be grammar, a foreign language, etc. But, it happens more often in mathematics classes, particularly because mathematics teaching is driven by executing procedures and based on memorization. It happens when the teaching is compartmentalized and no connections are made.

Some students have the belief that mathematics problems always have exact answers; therefore, they may feel especially pressured (e.g., many students get upset when they are solving an equation and get a fraction answer). To these students mathematics is “solving.” The only instruction they know is “solve.”

When he/she makes mistakes, a person with general anxiety is much more susceptible to socio-cultural factors related to mathematics learning and performance. They search for a rationale for their negative reactions and socio-cultural factors come into play. Common causes of this type of anxiety are:

  • distrust of one’s intuition, especially as applied to math
  • illusion that math practices are an exact science
  • common myths about mathematical ability
  • the myth that boys naturally do better in math than girls
  • the female fear of competing on man’s turf
  • negative experiences of people one trusts and respects, in school, at home or society in general

When exposed to any one or more of these negative experiences consistently, individuals may develop a negative attitude towards mathematics and perform poorly, reinforcing the anxiety.

People with this type of anxiety have difficulty in most aspects of mathematics, so their response to mathematics is more global in nature and more intense. Their self-diagnosis is: “I am just very bad in mathematics. Mathematics is beyond me.” Therefore, we call this kind of anxiety global mathematics anxiety.

When referred to my Center for evaluation or remediation, even before we begin the evaluation process, persons with global math anxiety volunteer comments about their incompetence in mathematics and their feelings about it. They are apt to say:

  • “I’m not smart enough to learn mathematics.”
  • “I can’t do math.”
  • “I just don’t understand math.”
  • “Math makes me sick.”
  • “Complete blackout when I see a math problem.”
  • “So and so is super bright, he is really good in math.”
  • “You would not believe it, but math makes me throw up.”
  • “I will always stay away from math. I hate math.”

Key phrases used by these people are “I Hate Math”; “Math Makes Me Sick.” Such a person is likely to show irrational behavior towards math or mathematicians.

Much of the anxious, blocking, fear-stricken behavior, and helplessness that many students experience and exhibit in mathematics often is not primary to mathematics as a subject but is caused by other factors. People experiencing this type of anxiety will usually talk about their moment of disinterest in math, about friends and relatives who are good in math and about tricks they played on math teachers whom they hated. There is usually a moment of “sudden death syndrome” when they felt that as far as math was concerned, they were through. These math anxious people stay away from mathematicians and anybody who is good at math. For his reason, it is almost impossible to get them to talk to a math teacher or to take them near a math building.

Persons with global math anxiety are less willing to deal with their math deficiencies because they are not aware of what they are. They spend a great deal of time and energy in making decisions about how to avoid math.

Global math anxiety is on a decline due to the efforts of organizations involved in improving math education for all and making special efforts to recruit women and minorities into mathematics courses and programs. But, due to the new efforts of education leaders to improve skill levels by making the math curriculum more rigorous and because many teachers are not yet prepared to teach effectively, we are seeing more students experiencing specific math anxiety.

[1] See previous three posts on Executive Function and previous three posts on Working Memory.

[2] Most mathematics teachers in high schools and colleges report cases of this type; however, these particular cases were reported by Dr. Dilip Datta, Professor of Mathematics, University of Rhode Island.

Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement (Part I)