A study of first and second graders found that many high-achieving students experience math anxiety, with worry and fear undermining them so much that they can fall behind other students who don’t have that anxiety.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found that math anxiety was most detrimental to the highest-achieving students, who typically have the most working memory.

“You can think of working memory as a kind of ‘mental scratchpad’ that allows us to work with whatever information is temporarily flowing through consciousness,” said Dr. Sian Beilock, a professor in psychology. “It’s especially important when we have to do a math problem and juggle numbers in our head. Working memory is one of the major building blocks of IQ.”

Worries about math can disrupt working memory. The research team found that a high degree of math anxiety undermined the performance of otherwise successful students, placing them almost half a school year behind their less anxious peers, in terms of math achievement.

For the study, the researchers tested 88 first-graders and 66 second-graders from a large urban school system. The students were tested to measure their academic abilities, their working memory and their fear of mathematics. They were asked, on a sliding scale, how nervous they felt to go to the front of the room and work on a mathematics problem on the board.

The study found that among the highest-achieving students, about half had medium-to-high math anxiety. Math anxiety was also common among low-achieving students, but it did not impact their performance. That may be because these students developed simpler ways of dealing with mathematics problems, such as counting on their fingers, according to the researchers.

“Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement by changing students’ attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence,” Beilock said.

The researchers recommend some ways to alleviate math anxiety, noting that “when anxiety is regulated or reframed, students often see a marked increase in their math performance.”

One way to reframe anxiety is to have students write about their worries regarding math ahead of time. A procedure called “expressive writing” helps students to “download” worries and minimize anxiety’s effects on working memory, the researchers said.

For younger students, expressive picture drawing, rather than writing, may also help lessen the burden of math anxiety, the researchers add. Teachers can also help students reframe their approach by helping them to see exams as a challenge rather than as a threat, the researchers conclude.

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