Math Anxiety, Impacts on Stem Education
Students cannot enter STEM majors if they have a fear of mathematics. Our ability to handle math anxiety has important implications on our efforts to improve STEM education outcomes. Here is a summary of some literature on math anxiety and our own thoughts on the key ideas.
The Prevalence of Math Anxiety
That many people feel anxious about math may not be so surprising. However, what is surprising is how early it beings and its prevalence. Studies have shown that becoming anxious about math and avoiding the subject begins as early as 5 years old. Many people experience math anxiety in activities as basic as calculating the tip at a restaurant. Math anxiety is estimated to be moderate to high in:
- 25% of 4-year college students and
- 80% of community college students.
Our Current Focus in STEM Education
We see many events organized like the White House Science Fair. The hope is that these will inspire other young students to become interested in STEM fields. However, such events are unlikely to inspire children who have already developed a strong sense of anxiety about math; Rather they are motivation to students who already enjoy science and math.
STEM curricula experts have begun to integrate student-driven inquiry and a real-world context that add authenticity to class projects. They also encourage educators to connect learning across disciplines. But what if this integration is happening when we still employ “unproductive math practices”.
Healthy math classrooms include time when the math is integrated and times when it is not. We know that developing deeper mathematical conceptual understanding takes time, perseverance, and a learning community free of anxiety. These are the things that our youngest students need most as they begin to develop their math identities. Integrated content cannot be the sole focus of STEM programs if it comes at the expense of addressing math anxiety.
The Concept of Math Anxiety
Math anxiety is not simply a proxy for low math ability. Rather people who become anxious at math become worried when faced with a math task. These worries tie up valuable thinking and reasoning resources. They are essentially doing two things at once when they do math – attending to their worries and doing the math. So, math anxiety causes people to perform worse in mathematics than their abilities warrant.
Students with math anxiety avoid math classes and math related careers. This creates a vicious cycle where they perform worse in mathematics and then, avoid opportunities to improve their skills.
Sources of Math Anxiety
High math anxiety individuals may have a problems with the basic building blocks of complex math. Such building blocks include:
- basic counting,
- comparing magnitudes or the sizes of two numbers, and
- spatial ability (skills in representing and transforming symbolic, non-linguistic information).
The logic is as follows:
- if higher math anxious adults also had difficulties with the foundational skills when they were children, and
- because these building blocks provide the foundations upon which more complex math is built. (For example, if you have trouble counting then you will have trouble adding),
- then adults with high levels of math anxiety are likely to have started school with difficulties in basic math skills. A vicious cycle emerges where difficulties in math cause them to become anxious about math. They then avoid further math learning and further become anxious and so on.
Social transmission of Math Anxiety
In addition to cognitive predispositions, there is also a social factor as well.
Math anxiety can be passed on by parents and early elementary school educators.
Interestingly, it was only those parents who helped their kids frequently that imparted their math anxiety to their kids. Frequent help with homework may provide opportunities for the higher math anxious parents to express to their children:
- their own dislike of and frustration with math and/or
- confusion about the math itself.
The interactions may be demotivating to children. This would result in a reduction of the amount of effort children invest in math and the amount of math they learn. And, when children learn less math, they may then become more math anxious.
How to Address Math Anxiety
Number and Spatial Talk
To prevent children from developing math anxiety, parents and teachers need to engage in more number-talk and spatial-talk. This may include counting objects in the house or using words like angle when talking about puzzles. The goal of this exposure is to help these children to develop strong foundational number and spatial competencies. Encouraging children to play more frequently with puzzles and blocks may also help to improve their spatial skills.
Scaffolds for Parents
For parents, they can help their young children with their homework without passing along their anxiety with scaffolds. Tools such as math worksheets and apps should support them as they aid their kids.
For adults, exercises that reframe their thinking about the upcoming task as less of a demotivating threat. If they can view the task as more of an opportunity, then they can perform closer to their ability. Adults may also benefit from focused breathing techniques.
Teacher education and development
The way math content is framed can have a marked effect on the math anxiety of pre-service teachers. Courses geared at teaching how children learn mathematical concepts lead to a decrease in teachers’ math anxiety. Whereas courses geared at teaching the same concepts to teachers did not lead to an improvement in math anxiety. These framed the material X is what you need to learn.
All teacher education in STEM fields should touch on math anxiety; existing teachers need to address it as part of their PD.
Success in math requires not only knowledge of mathematical concepts but also the right mind-set.