A new study on math anxiety out of the University of Chicago has found that heightened stress while working math problems makes the smart kids in class perform below their capabilities more than it does the average students.
The study also found that math anxiety can start young — like, just about the time kids start learning math.
The consequence is that some otherwise high-achieving kids are performing as much as a half-year behind in math throughout their early years in school. Worse, they never manage to get over math anxiety and it follows them through life.
These findings are presented in Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School in the Journal of Cognition and Development.
So why do higher-achieving students who report the symptoms of math anxiety have a harder time than average-performing students who also get stressed out over math? It comes down to how they’re used to solving math problems, according to the research. The high performing students appear to have a greater working memory, which is partly what makes them smart in general. They simply hold more information in their head and have ready and quick access to it when needed. Kids who have less working memory tend to rely on other methods of managing information or solving problems. So in an early math learner, someone with less of a working memory, even if they suffer from math anxiety, might go to their trusty fingers and start counting.
The better student, however, is used to access her memory for the numbers. But the stress of math anxiety interrupts the flow of information. Hence, lower performance.
The researchers also found that math anxiety isn’t something you have to live with. Rather, it’s something that, when recognized, can be regulated. For example, writing about the anxiety can help mitigate it. For younger kids, drawing pictures about the anxiety has the same effect.
Nearly half of the approximately 150 first- and second-graders the research team survey had some level of math anxiety, as other studies show, could follow them through the rest of their school days. Previous studies have found that math anxiety affects a larger number of girls than boys. So techniques for managing stress and numbers seems like it should be as much a part of math education as multiplication tables.
What I’d like to know is what causes math anxiety and whether high rates of math stress are universal or somewhat unique to American education. I wonder if timed tests, lots of memorization and pushing higher-level math skills on younger and younger kids doesn’t contribute to the problem. Last month’s New York Times OpEd questioning the necessity of Algebra for all spawned references to other studies, which showed scope creep in math education has gotten to the point where math skills are being introduced at developmentally inappropriate times around the U.S. In California, all students begin taking Algebra in eight grade. But that used to be a ninth- or even 10th-grade math class. Incidentally, Algebra failure rates are at an all-time high. Is there a connection?
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