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)

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