Essays/Articles :: Education

Math Anxiety Revisited in 2008 (pdf)

PART ONE: The math anxiety phenomenon

Math anxiety has been of explicit concern in the United States for over 30 years.  It has been suggested that it is so prevalent that it affects educational policy (Walker & Karp, 2005) and that many teachers in elementary schools are so afflicted.  Burns (1998) estimates that 2/3 of American adults find mathematics intimidating.  As a society, this implies that in order to increase our math-science “people capital,” we need to train teachers in the lower grades how to overcome this condition in addition to preventing its proliferation in later schooling (so that prospective teachers are more confident in their mathematical abilities). 

This article focuses on the causes and treatment of math anxiety for college age (and older) students taking required courses with a significant percentage of mathematical content. It examines in detail instructor – student dynamics in the present while also looking at each party’s individual contributions to this condition.  Such an analysis signifies a departure from others in this area where in particular, instructor contribution is typically considered only as a past-based phenomenon – as in, “I’m anxious because my 4th grade teacher made me feel stupid.”  Lost in the genuine attempt to rid the planet of math anxiety is the fact that the current instructor may not only be triggering feelings from the past, but also truly making life miserable for students in the present.

I will proceed as follows.  First, I will briefly review some current and standard definitions and explanations for math anxiety.  Then I present a model that identifies sources of anxiety, linking them to performance and attributions. After attending to the factors behind the anxiety, I endeavor to indicate how they can be reversed in the second half of the article.                                                                                                                  

Some definitions and assumed causes of Math Anxiety

In the broadest sense, anxiety can be interpreted as a reaction to a situation perceived as threatening (Barnes, 1984).  Mathematics is often considered as a difficult learning venue with the potential to trigger feelings of distress and even dread in those students who are at a loss to comprehend its concepts or to use it to solve problems.  This response is also taken as a definition of math anxiety (Ashcraft & Faust, 1994).  There is a definition of a math anxiety cycle (Mitchell, 1987): past trauma in learning within this domain leads to present apprehensions, replete with physical symptoms and strong negative affect, creating a scenario in which the student cannot absorb information or think logically.  This culminates in poor performance, causing even more anxiety and initiating a cycle with continued poor performance.

Ashcraft & Kirk (1997) include preoccupation with worry and self-doubt as math learners so that students cannot focus on the material or assigned problems, as an operational definition.  Helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganization when dealing with mathematical problems are the defining characteristics for Tobias and Weissbrod (1980).  The hallmark, according to McKee (2002), is a state of confusion, panic, memory loss, and mental paralysis.  Most of the researchers agree on the physiological symptoms describing math anxiety: increase in heart rate, sweating, trembling, and nausea top the list.  Math anxiety has also been defined as the “state of discomfort” students experience in responding to mathematical tasks that threaten their self-esteem (Cemen, 1987).

When students are asked to reflect on how they came to be math anxious, common categories include bad/insensitive teaching in the past, gaps in learning, and attitudes of others (Freiberg, 2005; Perry, 2004). Hadfield and Trujillo (1999) offer a similar set of attributions from their research: “Environmental” factors include previous difficult classroom interactions, pressure from parents both to succeed and not to (gender bias: parents who feel it’s not appropriate for females to excel in math sabotage any interest in the discipline), bad teachers in early schooling, and the perception of the discipline as nothing more than a collection of rigid rules.  “Intellectual” factors include learning styles not being addressed, low self confidence in math ability, and finding/dismissing math as irrelevant.  The final category, “personality traits,” include shyness, low self-esteem, and gender (the field considered until quite recently to be a male dominated one).

Spielberger (1972) sees anxiety as resulting from a cycle initiated by a stressor and a perception of threat.  An interesting point of view comes from Norwood (1994) who focuses on traits such as difficulty in handling frustration and impulsivity (as in ADHD), combined with poor self-concept.  Dossel (1993) identifies several factors, such as the apparent right – wrong answer typically thought to characterize mathematics. Tobias (1993) posits that word problems are the scourge associated with math anxiety in part because students are rarely taught strategies separate from content to deal with them.  Montague (2002) refines this attribution with the suggestion that anxiety flows from not knowing how to begin working on problems.  Zopp (I999) points out that the anxiety in a learning context can result from unrelated life events, such as a death in the family.

Finally, school teachers are often math anxious themselves and inadvertently pass their feelings on to the more vulnerable students, as their lack of confidence in learning math is contagious (Fiore, 1999). It should not be surprising to find that parents can pass on their anxieties as well (Jackson & Leffingwell, 1999).   Buhman and Young (1992) implicate the math anxious teacher in the lower grades, particularly those who cover up their deficits with a false show of confidence.  This scenario can create a disastrous experience for some children, as I shall discuss later when I present my model.

Another Approach

In reviewing these theories/frameworks, I find them to be essentially “static”: that is, they take math anxiety as something afflicting a student because of past events and relationships. While basically agreeing that these past-based factors are indeed relevant and in fact may fully account for a student’s state of mind entering a required technical college course, I am more interested in how what happens in the course can create, perpetuate, and exacerbate anxiety on the one hand or ameliorate it on the other.  The dynamics between students and instructor, between students and the discipline are ongoing and I focus on them in the current course.

Although many articles also include recipes for amelioration of the anxiety, they act as if the current instructor has only to act on these suggestions, not taking into account that this instructor may be adding to the problem during the course for a variety of reasons.  The tacit assumption in many of these perspectives is that college instructors do not themselves suffer from math anxiety and are therefore above scrutiny; they have only to be trained, to learn what to do.  Thus, according to this way of thinking, students’ math anxiety will either be addressed in a helpful way if the instructor chooses to follow these guidelines or will remain as is.

Link to full essay (pdf) (doc)