Lions and Tigers and Math, Oh My!

Did a linear equation ever give you sweaty palms? Heart palpitations? If you recognize these symptoms, turns out you might have Math Anxiety.

When I first heard the term, I assumed it miust have been conjured by pricey tutors or educational consultants seeking to drum up business. Turns out it’s an affliction that many psychologists recognize and have spent decades researching.

One such researcher is Mark H. Ashcraft, chair of the Psychology department at University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Here’s a snippet adapted from a chat we had recently.

What is math anxiety?
Math anxiety can be viewed as a genuine phobia. Symptoms range from apprehension all the way up through dread of doing math or having to do math.
People with math anxiety tend to avoid math subjects. They don’t major in math, don’t pursue careers that involve math.

How does math anxiety interfere with math thinking?
When you sit a math anxious person down to do math, they waste their attention and working memory on ther anxiety and worry, rather than working on the math problem.

Anyone can do 3 plus 2 , but if you give someone a more difficult problem -- even two column addition -- they will waste some of their working memory on the anxiety, and will not be able to do some of the procedural things. It slows them down, they make more mistakes, they get more flustered.


How do you know Math anxiety is not linked to some other kind of anxiety, such as performance axiety or testing anxiety?
Math anxiety and test anxiety are certainly related. But we have seen many people who will clutch on a math test who will not clutch on a history or English test.

A former student of mine conducted physiological tests on people as they answered both math and verbal questiosn. There was a significant difference in the blood pressure and heart rate for the math questions.

How widespread is math anxiety?
We score people’s math anxiety according to a simple 25-item test. They gauge how anxious they would be in different settings, including balancing their checkbook, figuring a restaurant bill if they feel they have been overcharged, preparing for a test. The average scores is 36. About 20 percent of respondents scores a 44 or higher, what we consider a high score.

Do you have any math anxiety in your past or your present? What situations cause you to take a deep breath?

Teachers, how do you see this kind of anxiety in your classes? How do you address it?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 3, 2008; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Math Literacy
Previous: How Much Math is Enough for College? | Next: Logic and Formulas: The Core of High School Math

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