It’s time to stop the clock on math anxiety
Last Updated on 7 March 2023
Our future depends on mathematical thinking, but math trauma extends across our country – and the world – due to the ineffective ways the subject is often taught in classrooms, as a narrow set of procedures that students are expected to reproduce at high speed.
In a newly published paper, researchers showed not only that math anxiety was negatively related to performance in 63 of the 64 countries tested in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), but also that the highest achieving students had the most striking negative relationship between math anxiety and performance.
It’s one of the important findings on the brain and mathematics learning that has profound implications for students’ achievement in math.
Unfortunately math continues to be taught in ways that are far removed from the research evidence on ways to teach well, and many ineffective classroom practices – timed tests, speed pressure, procedural teaching – are the reasons for the vast numbers of children and adults with math anxiety. They are also the reason that so many high-achieving students leave not only mathematics but the numerous STEM courses that require mathematics. Ashcraft and Krause (2007) found that math anxiety severely impacts student’s ability to enjoy math, motivation to take more math or do well in math.
Widespread, prevalent among women and hugely damaging, math anxiety is prompted in the early years when timed tests are given in classrooms and it snowballs from there. Psychologists’ recommendations — including counseling and words to repeat before a test — severely miss the mark. The only way to turn our nation around is to change the way we teach and view math. The problems that we have now include these:
- First, math is often taught as a performance subject. Ask your children what their role is in math class, and they are very likely to say it is to get questions correct. They do not say this about other subjects. More than any other subject math is about tests, grades, homework and competitions.
Second, many teachers and parents communicate to students that they have a math brain or not, an incorrect idea disproven by brain science showing that all students can learn math.
Third, math is taught as a set of procedures and calculations, when brain research tells us that visual representations and ideas are really important for brain connections and mathematical growth. Visual math tasks enable learners to be creative, and to see the beauty in math. For examples, see https://www.youcubed.org/tasks/.
Fourth, math is taught as a subject of speed and answers, rather than depth, struggle, and ideas.
Fifth, math is the subject with the most homework – making students think that even in their own hours at home they have to be engaged in math performance.
One of my Stanford undergraduates captured these different problems when she reflected on her school math experience: “For much of my life, math has been my ultimate nemesis: my least favorite class, my lowest test scores, my most groan-inducing homework. Math appeared to me as the enemy of creativity and social interaction, and the refuge of rule-loving, closed-minded people.”
Zoe is not alone in these thoughts – they are felt by many students who have been through years of U.S. math classes. But some people have a very different math experience. The fortunate students, whose teachers have learned to teach math as a learning rather than a performance subject, develop a very different relationship with math.
Often they see it as an open set of ideas that they can play with and explore. They see themselves as capable and they see math as a playground. More typically, people have a much more negative relationship – they see math as a set of procedures and calculations, that is all about speed and performance – and they are terrified of failure and believe that struggle means you are not a “math person.”
I co-direct a center at Stanford University that is dedicated to changing the nation’s math relationships (www.youcubed.org) through providing teachers with free, research-based resources. When we taught middle school students for 18 lessons through creative, open, visual math, they changed their ideas and relationships with math. After only 18 days they also improved their test performance by the equivalent of 1.6 years of school; their change can be seen here. Teachers and students who take my online classes talk about similar transformations – as one teacher recently reported, “If I’d learned math this way, I wouldn’t have cried every night in math going through school.”
It is really important to change the math teaching in our country’s classrooms, not only to improve math achievement but to change people’s relationships with math. We all need mathematical thinking in our lives, and those who go through their lives afraid of math get constant reminders that something is wrong. Learning is not just about acquiring new facts and information; it changes who we are as people. That is because learning is about identity.
When we learn, it changes how we look at the world, what we know, what we believe and who we are.
Researchers and others try to change math anxiety by reassuring students and comforting them, but we should be doing something really different and much more radical. We should be changing the way math is taught in classrooms, as these Stanford undergraduates describe, and we cannot make those changes soon enough.
Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, co-founder of youcubed.org and author of best-selling book Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages & Innovative Teaching (Wiley, 2016).
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