Math Anxiety

From EdWeek, via Joanne Jacobs' blog.

A new brain-imaging study suggests that the way they deal with that first rush of anxiety can be critical to their actual math performance....

...The researchers found that students' performance had less to do with how afraid they were of the coming math problem—as measured by activity in the amygdala, the brain's fear center—and more to do with how they responded to that fear.

While the study focused on college-age students, the regions of the brain that govern cognitive control and emotional regulation do not completely mature until a person reaches her mid-20s, so Beilock said the effects of anxiety may be even more important for younger students.

"Think about walking across a suspension bridge if you're afraid of heights versus if you're not—completely different ballgame," Lyons said in a statement on the study.

For highly math-anxious students, the researchers found, "it is not necessarily the level of one's self-reported math anxiety per se that predicts one's math deficit, rather it is one's ability to call upon frontoparietal regions before the math task has even begun."

Moreover, Beilock told me, that sort of focus can be taught, and math interventions that address anxiety may be more helpful than those that remediate math skills alone.

Read the Edweek story here, or the whole study here.

I'd love to see a randomized study that tested interventions designed to reduce math anxiety.

The hypothesis that this would lead to better math achievement is plausible. However, I can easily imagine: less anxiety, but no improvement in learning. Commenter K.A. wrote on this blog yesterday:

As an English teacher, I integrate CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy, which reduces anxiety) into the curriculum by teaching my students the CBT model and then asking them to apply it to the narrator in a memoir. They usually love CBT as a framework for understanding behavior, but (perhaps because they up against so much) I haven’t found it altering their behavior in ways directly observable as I hoped it would.

For example, it didn’t help my students finish essays who typically get stuck and think “I can’t do this” or “I’m not good at this.”

On the positive end of things, my relationship with my students improved because it changed our conversation in these moments when they were stuck; discussing it within the framework of CBT meant that we were no longer playing the typical authority-student tug-of-war.