Opinion: Is It Really Math Anxiety?
September 13, 2012

What Is Math Anxiety and Is It Real?

Derek Walter for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Cognition researchers have long held an interest in a phenomenon known as “math anxiety.” While this has been extensively studied among middle and high-school students, very little is known about whether it exists with younger children.

Researchers at the University of Chicago undertook the first such study targeted at first and second grade students. The research focused on whether one´s anxiety about math could negatively impact the Working Memory, which is how the brain holds multiple pieces of information in the mind at once for performing mental tasks.

It was theorized that this phenomena existed as far down as first grade. They studied a large number of first and second graders, testing their cognitive abilities to determine how much working memory they had, then had them perform math calculations. The children were asked to rate how much anxiety they felt over this and other hypothetical math situations, such as taking a test or calculating a particular type of problem. The children would rate their answer on a scale of smiley and sad faces.

The researchers drew a correlation between a higher level of math anxiety and students who had tested with a higher level of working memory. They hypothesized the more developed one´s working memory, the more one is aware of their own math difficulties, thus increasing the anxiety.

The researchers rightly conclude that more precocious children may have higher anxiety about the difficulties they face in math. Yet the larger working memory one has, the more anxiety one feels in any fashion whether it is writing, performing, speaking, or any subject matter.

Much of what society labels “math anxiety” may very well be performance anxiety. You don´t want to make a mistake in front of your peers and look stupid. One who has a higher cognitive ability has more potential to work into a nervous frenzy than someone with a lower cognitive ability or subject matter knowledge. Being wrong frequently, especially if you are not good at something, may not be as anxiety producing.

We should also consider how some of the first- and second-graders´ personalities may have been a factor. More introverted children may have experienced some anxiety less from the math and more from needing to interact with someone else.

The larger question is how much of math anxiety itself is the product of other factors. What is it about our culture or education methods that produce a researchable diagnosis for one subject matter area? Why do we not also have “social studies anxiety” or “English anxiety?”

As math teaching and performance goes under a greater microscope, much of the national conversation about this must also focus on how we demystify math education. The rational and logical thinking which math requires can be a powerful learning tool. It is also essential for those who wish to make an impact in fields that demand a solid mathematics background.

We should not have a nation of children who bring poor math grades home to parents who simply shrug and say, “Math is hard.”