Most of us can remember a conversation in which someone openly professes a dislike (or even hatred) of math, making statements such as, “I’m not a math person” or “I just don’t get math.” Our cultural dislike of math has become so mainstream that it has even infiltrated the toys that we give our children (e.g., Barbie dolls used to say, “Math class is tough” and t-shirts read, “I’m too pretty to do math”). Indeed, there are many negative attitudes and stereotypes that surround math and this is significant because when it comes to success in mathematics, attitudes matter.
As scientists trained in various facets of psychology and education, we’ve spent a notable amount of time working to understand how some of these negative attitudes and beliefs are related to success in math. We have been particularly interested in the role that math anxiety plays in math achievement. Math anxiety simply refers to feelings of fear, tension or apprehension that many people experience when they are engaging with math. While it may not be surprising that people experience math anxiety in traditionally high-pressure situations such as during exams, many people also report feeling a high level of anxiety during everyday math situations, such as calculating a tip at a restaurant or deciding whether they were given proper change after making a purchase.
Math anxiety is an important issue not only because the anxiety itself is unpleasant, but also because math anxiety actually causes students to perform worse in math than they would have if they had not been anxious. One of the main theories is that when students are anxious about math they experience negative thoughts and ruminations. Because mathematical reasoning requires a high degree of cognitive resources and because we only have a limited-capacity system, when students have to attend to these negative thoughts and ruminations, they are left with insufficient mental resources to perform their best in the math task at hand. In this respect, the anxiety is both unpleasant and detrimental for performance.
Math anxiety isn’t only associated with underperformance on math tests. Students who are anxious about math are also more likely to take fewer math courses, to do less homework in the classes that they do take, and are less likely to go into math-related careers. Estimates are that roughly 80% of college students and 25% of university students report high to very high levels of anxiety about math.
It is clear that numeracy and mathematics are important. It is also clear that anxiety about math can be a barrier to academic success. What do we do? Step one is identifying which students are math anxious — easily done through self-report questionnaires. In our own research we have found that students seem to have a great deal of insight into their own levels of anxiety about math. Once a student has been identified as being anxious about math, there are a number of promising strategies that can help to reduce the amount of anxiety that students feel when doing math and the negative impact of math anxiety on math performance. For example, simply teaching postsecondary students to engage in 15 minutes of focused breathing before a math test can lead to students feeling calmer and scoring higher (relative to their peers who don’t do the focused breathing). Another simple and easy-to-do strategy is expressive writing, where students write about their feelings regarding an upcoming math test. For those students who have high levels of math anxiety, writing about the math test for as little as seven minutes can lead to better performance on the test than had they not done the expressive writing.
Given the prevalence of math anxiety in our students, its impact on math performance and the promise of simple interventions, it’s important for those of us in higher education to be cognizant of this anxiety and the ways that we can help students reduce their anxiety and boost their math performance.
Erin Maloney is a senior researcher at HEQCO, Daniel Ansari is a professor at Western University and Jonathan Fugelsang is a professor at the University of Waterloo.