Math Anxiety, Its Factors and Interventions

Introduction

One of the problems that may affect the classroom environment and student achievement (for age 3-6 years) negatively is math anxiety. Math anxiety strongly affects mathematic achievement in all levels of learning. The anxiety is defined as a negative cognition, avoidance behavior, and inadequate and pressured feeling that affects a student while solving problems related to mathematics. The majority of the learners in the United States struggle with math anxiety (Andrews & Brown, 2015). Due to math anxiety, these students develop fear and dislike towards mathematics, which hinders them from excelling in the subject. Consequently, math anxiety bears an individual as well as national consequences. People who suffer from anxiety tend to avoid studies related to mathematics thus limiting their career options. This paper discusses the development of the problem, impact on the classroom environment and student achievement, causes, and suggested interventions.

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Problem Development

According to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial perspective of personality development, an individual’s lifespan is marked by various crises. Every crisis can make a person progress forward or regress. Erickson’s theory in industry versus inferiority stage suggests that children aged about 6 years either become competent or feel inferior in particular skill areas (Ruff & Boes, 2014). In relation to Erikson’s industry versus inferiority stage, problems in mathematics seem to start at the early levels of a child’s education. The issues escalate if they are not addressed on time. According to Ramirez, Chang, Maloney, Levine, and Beilock (2016), math anxiety is a complex experience that is caused by mental bias and experience with negative attitudes towards mathematics.

The anxiety tends to develop initially at the early stages of human development (3-6 years), or even before formal schooling. In the United States, many children in the first grade report different math anxiety levels, which are associated with low math achievement. The anxiety seems to get worse as a child grows older and reaches its peak when the kid is in ninth or tenth grade. This composition of fear and worry towards math plateaus after that and persists into older adulthood. A student suffering from anxiety feels unconfident in his or her ability to solve mathematical problems. As a result, such students can only take the minimum required mathematic courses.

Impact on Classroom Environment and Student Achievement

The avoidance from pursuing advanced math courses makes students feel inadequate to excel in mathematics. The inferiority feeling bars these learners from advancing in their mathematical potential as their education requires. It is estimated that 25% of fourth-year university students and not less than four out of five students from institutions of higher learning in America have either moderate or high math anxiety levels (Ramirez et al., 2016). As a global learning problem, this type of anxiety in various parts of the world is caused by poor results in mathematics or fear of the subject. The impact of the feeling is not restricted to scholarly cases since it is also believed to have a hand in poor medication estimates by nurses, reduced teaching effectiveness amongst teachers, and ineffective financial forecast. In fact, mathematics anxiety in some individuals is so serious that it is even triggered by simple tasks such as reading mathematical formulas loudly. Therefore, math anxiety can have huge and harmful consequences on the daily lives of people. Fear of math is a common problem in many people, not only preventing them from engaging in the subject successfully but also making them avoid pursuing professions that are related to mathematics. As a result, their future career and opportunities become severely limited.

It is paramount to understand how math anxiety leads to poor performance to create effective interventions for reducing its adverse effect on math achievement and overall performance. Although there is no apparent model explaining the causes of math anxiety, there have been various compelling research findings, which give insights on a developmental trajectory for the relationship between math anxiety and student achievement. Math anxiety is more than just feeling anxious about poor math skills. Instead, learners suffering from math anxiety experience worry, especially about performing poorly on the math-related task (Andrews & Brown, 2015). These worries have an adverse impact on the important reasoning and thinking resources required for the successful completion of the assignment.

The “mental scratchpad” that allows the learners to “work” with all forms of data is stored in consciousness. By having an inadequate capacity, operational memory in these learners has reduced effectiveness in integrating, computing, storing, and manipulating math-related information due to math anxiety (Maloney, Waechter, Risko, & Fugelsang, 2012). While doing mathematics, learners with problems in the subject also attend to their uncertainties at the same time, and consequently, they end up failing in the subject. Math anxiety has a higher impact on learners’ performance in the subject than the influence of their abilities. When functional magnetic resonance imaging is used to evaluate brain activation differences between kids with high math anxiety levels and those with low levels as they perform math questions, its results also support the idea that math anxiety interrupts learner’s working memory resources which are essential for completing a given math task.

Apart from showing more brain activations that are related to negative psychological processing, students having a high magnitude of math anxiety also have minimal levels of brain activation related to working memory and excellent performance in math. It is worth noting that the interruption of processes of operational memory is not the sole connection between mathematics anxiety and bad performance while handling mathematics problems (Maloney et al., 2012). Additionally, anxiety makes students avoid math, mathematics classes, as well as careers that are related to the subject (Andrews & Brown, 2015). The cumulative effect of this avoidance is a poor overall performance. In any case, it becomes hard for learners students to improve their math proficiencies if they do not actively participate in mathematical activities. Math learners with this problem usually go through a catch-22 situation in which their math performance is continuously made worse by anxiety. Consequently, these students avoid mathematics and chances for sharpening their skills.

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Various adult learning studies show that people having a high degree of mathematics anxiety may process numbers differently from those who are good at the subject. Students having serious problems in mathematics have trouble even when counting items. Performance in higher levels of math depends on counting as its foundation. Therefore, students who do not do well in counting also have difficulty with more advanced mathematics. In line with this relationship, such learners also have worse mathematics performance as compared to their other colleagues. Similarly to counting, number comparison, a vital numerical skill regarding a student’s capability of comparing different numbers, acts as a foundation for more advanced mathematics. People experiencing a low exact depiction of numbers usually have poor math performance. According to Maloney et al. (2012), individuals experiencing severe math problems have a poor accurate illustration of numbers than those who are less anxious when comparing different numbers, in addition to when assessing two numbers that have been presented together at the same time. These findings suggest that students who have problems in doing mathematical calculations have less precision of numbers as compared with their peers with low math anxiety.

Causes

Social Factors

Social factors comprise of persistent race and gender stigmas, as well as insufficient or lack of support by parents in low socioeconomic households. Students who have experienced negative subgroup stigma tend to show anxiety, low self-esteem, and no motivation. Different studies suggest that severe math anxiety and low mathematics achievement in females are because of the continued stereotype that girls cannot excel in the subject (Ruff & Boes, 2014). Therefore, girls who are exposed to this myth become greatly vulnerable to high mathematics anxiety extents regardless of their ability to perform well in related courses. Reviewed studies confirm that girls are prone to higher anxiety levels and lower math achievement as compared to boys (Maloney et al., 2012).

The continuation of stereotypes makes math anxiety and low self-esteem rampant among some minority groups. When stereotyped as poor achievers, ethnic minorities are highly likely to lose interest and motivation in math. For instance, African American learners whose performance in math is poor are more likely to avoid engaging in examinations and activities than white students. Additionally, the beliefs and expectations that parents hold can also have a negative impact on a student’s self-esteem and his or her attitude towards math. The parents of students suffering from math anxiety and hailing from low socioeconomic households also struggle with the negative attitude and fear towards math. Most of the time, the negative attitude and beliefs held by these parents are passed on to their children, leading to continuous low math performance. According to Maloney et al. (2012), parental support is paramount to the student’s self-efficacy in math. Students who come from low socioeconomic households do not have this support because of the physical absence of parents or their lack of a good educational background. The vulnerability of students to math anxiety is increased by the absence of such backing in family and academic environments, social expectations, and negative stereotypes.

Cognitive Factors

A biological cognition framework can increase a student’s vulnerability to math anxiety. Dyscalculia, a condition marked with various learning disabilities is also associated with math anxiety. Students who have difficulties in identifying differences in sizes of numbers usually experience high degrees of math anxiety. The foundation of learning advanced math includes the recognition of numerical magnitude. Therefore, students who lack the ability to identify the differences are highly likely to be frustrated, develop low self-esteem, and have a negative attitude towards mathematics when they are introduced to advanced concepts. Students with either average or high math capabilities may also possess cognitive factors that could make them susceptible to math anxiety (Ruff & Boes, 2014). The cognitive aspect of working memory strongly influences the acquisition of skills. Learners having high working memory levels are vulnerable to strain and anxiety, both of which have a negative impact on their performance and learning of math. Emotional reactions that occur as a result of problems in mathematics can deactivate operational memory that is essential for learning and solving problems. When stressed, students are unable to utilize their brains effectively.

Academic Factors

Academic factors, especially the curriculum used in some schools, heavily influence math anxiety. A curriculum that requires students to do timed tests and memorize concepts increase anxiety, consequently, making math a high-risk task. The majority of students in elementary classes who show math anxiety continue to have unpleasant experiences throughout the education system (Ruff & Boes, 2014). Elementary grade math curriculum which does not offer a conceptual understanding of mathematics but rather concentrates on the attainment of shallow comprehension of fundamental computational skills may make young learners become vulnerable to math anxiety. Students learning through such a curriculum forget what they have learned within a very short time and they continue to feel more frustrated. When used in math classes, a traditional curriculum focusing on fundamental skills, tutor lectures, and seatwork is highly likely to cause more math anxiety than a non-traditional curriculum, which emphasizes group work as well as real-life applications.

Apart from the curriculum, math anxiety is also influenced by relationships efficacy and attitudes held by teachers. Teachers whose personality is marked by math fear and anxiety unintentionally pass the traits to their students (Ruff & Boes, 2014). The majority of people with math anxiety report that their fear and hatred towards mathematics were triggered by an inadequate or unfriendly teacher while in elementary school. When a student is taught for one year by a math-anxious teacher, he or she is highly likely to perform poorly and have a negative attitude towards mathematics. When a teacher has math anxiety, he or she lacks confidence in his or her potential to teach the subject and as a result, becomes frustrated. Out of frustration, the teacher disengages from teaching math creatively and instead relies on textbook answer keys.

Interventions

Although math anxiety is believed to be caused by various factors, the feeling leads to a single remarkable negative impact, poor performance. Depending on the different causes, researchers have come up with suggestions on how to reduce math anxiety among students. One of the ways suggested for reducing math anxiety resulting from social factors include raising awareness of math performance stereotypes regarding gender and races to school staff (Ruff & Boes, 2014). Educating parents and encouraging them to attend workshops addressing the stereotype issues is recommended to boost student support of academic accomplishments both at home and school. To identify math learning disabilities developed by students in their early stages of learning promptly, changes in assessment techniques are suggested. Suggested interventions include group work/assessment, open discussion, and real-life applications to replace the traditional curriculums, which provoke math anxiety. Cooperative groups offer students opportunities to share ideas, justify answers, and verbalize thoughts. Teachers also have an imperative task in the reduction or avoidance of students’ mathematics problems (Nipaz, Belecina, & Garvida, 2016). They are also encouraged to analyze their math anxiety and work towards creating friendly classroom settings that are free from stress. To achieve a favorable learning environment, teachers should also encourage all students to participate actively in learning math regardless of whether they make mistakes or not. Such encouragement boosts student’s self-efficacy and reduces mathematics anxiety, thus improved performance.

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Since worries that interfere with thinking and reasoning resources essential for handling math tasks are believed to trigger anxiety, high-math-anxious individuals can instantaneously perform better in mathematics if their fears or negative consequences of the fears are reduced. In relation to this argument, Park, Ramirez, and Beilock (2014) show that expressive techniques lessen the magnitude of interfering thoughts that students experience when anxious. Although it cannot be concluded that an easy writing practice can rectify the damage arising from many years of math avoidance, it can undoubtedly assist individuals having such high anxiety rates to perform in accordance with what their utmost capacities warrant. Expressive writing may be a successful math anxiety reduction strategy since it offers students an opportunity for reappraising a possibly negative scenario; in this case a math test. When people see an anxiety-causing situation as a threat, they usually perform below their potential. Moreover, individuals normally perform poorly when they see a given scenario as a negative challenge. Therefore, expressive writing may assist students struggling with anxiety to reappraise their attitude in mathematical tasks as it will make them see an assignment or test in the subject as a positive challenge instead of a threat.

Conclusion

Math anxiety is a serious learning problem whose timely intervention can improve student’s performance in mathematics. Teachers, learning institutions, parents, and students have roles to play to achieve ultimate success in math. When the suggested strategies are implemented early enough, especially at the elementary grade level, students will have a positive attitude towards mathematic as well as a conducive environment for effective learning the subject. With such an environment, teachers will also be effective in their knowledge and skill delivery.

References

Andrews, A., & Brown, J. (2015). The effects of math anxiety. Education, 135(3), 362-370.

Maloney, E. A., Waechter, S., Risko, E. F., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2012). Reducing the sex difference in math anxiety: The role of spatial processing ability. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(3), 380-384.

Nipaz, J. G. G., Belecina, R. R., & Garvida, M. D. (2016). Language of encouragement: Effects on mathematics anxiety, self-efficacy and mathematics performance of college students in the Philippines. World Journal of Research and Review, 2(5), 09-14.

Park, D., Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). The role of expressive writing in math anxiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(2), 103-105.

Ramirez, G., Chang, H., Maloney, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2016). On the relationship between math anxiety and math achievement in early elementary school: The role of problem solving strategies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 141, 83-100.

Ruff, S. E., & Boes, S. R. (2014). The sum of all fears: The effects of math anxiety on math achievement in fifth grade students and the implications for school counselors. Georgia School Counselors Association Journal, 21(1), 1-10.

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StudyCorgi. (2020, December 15). Math Anxiety, Its Factors and Interventions. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/math-anxiety-its-factors-and-interventions/

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