Math classes are a daily source of anxiety for students who dislike or believe that they are “not good” at math, and a new brain-imaging study shows that this initial rush of anxiety can negatively affect performance on math tests. The good news is that students suffering from math anxiety can take steps to recognize and overcome their fears.
Sian L. Beilock, Associate Psychology Professor at the University of Chicago, and doctoral candidate Ian M. Lyons have conducted in-depth research on what causes math anxiety and how to treat it. Beilock has found that “just the thought of doing math problems can trigger stress responses in people with math anxiety, and adult teachers can pass their trepidation about math onto their students” (Education Week). Beilock and Lyons’s most recent study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to answer this simple question: “Which comes first: the struggle to do math, or the fear of it?”
Beilock and Lyons propose that fear of math may have a more negative effect on performance than previously thought. As expected, students observed to have high levels of math anxiety during the study (determined by brain activity observed on the fMRI) performed worse than students who did not exhibit signs of anxiety.
Even more important than fear of math, however, was how the students dealt with the fear. Students who exhibited math anxiety but managed to perform well on the test anyway showed more brain activity in the frontal and parietal regions. These regions of the brain are responsible for cognitive control, focus and regulating negative emotions. Their ability to perform almost as well as the students who exhibited few signs of math anxiety suggests that, while fear of math is debilitating, it can be overcome through cognitive effort.
This is good news for every student who has ever struggled on a math test. Understanding the mental processes behind fear and working to overcome them is a critical step to take to improve performance.
Beilock said of the encouraging results: “This study really suggests we can devise interventions that can help students reappraise the situation and control emotions before they even get into a task. It shows how some math anxious people are able to engage brain power to succeed.”
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