People of all ages, genders and cultures feel math anxiety; the sense of "tension, apprehension and fear of situations involving math" (Beilock & Willingham, 2014, p. 29). Students who have math anxiety usually obtain lower achievement levels in mathematics because anxiety can interfere with working memory so it takes more effort to process problems and more errors are made (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). Anxiety stems from a fear of not doing a task the right way, fear of being judged, and fear of making mistakes.
Math anxiety can present itself as a fight or flight response, releasing cortisol (a stress hormone) that can increase a person's heart rate, cause a person to break out in sweat, shaking, dry mouth and an increase in respiration (Robson, 2015).
Math Activity: Demonstrating How Mindset Can Remove Math Anxiety
Solve the following math question in 2 minutes:
"A movie theatre wants to compare the volumes of popcorn in two containers, a cube with edge length 8.1 cm and a cylinder with radius 4.5 cm and height 8.0 cm. Which container holds more popcorn? "
(Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 30)
How did solving this grade 9 problem make you feel?
Math anxiety can begin as early as first or second grade (Ramirez et al, 2013 as cited in Andrew & Brown, 2015), so understanding the root of this fear is critical for alleviating math phobia. A survey can help gather information about the origin of a student's math anxiety.
The origins of math anxiety are classified into three categories:
1. Environmental Variables: Teacher's and parents' attitudes about math and the beliefs about a
child's abilites can impact the level of math anxiety a child experiences. Teacher and parent math anxiety can also be transferred to the child. Being cognizant of the messages children are receiving about their math ability can alleviate the risk of children developing math anxiety. Removing artificial stresses such as timed tests and the fear of making mistakes in a public setting can also remove precursors of anxiety.
2. Intelligence Variables: It is assumed that students with lower IQs will have more math anxiety
than those with a higher IQ. This is not necessarily true. Lyons & Beilock (2012) conducted a study which indicated that high math anxiety is not due to low cognitive ability but in fact due to the release of chemicals during stressful situations that inhibit the function of memory. Specifical, stress inhibits the function of the cortical and subcortical areas of the brain, which are responsible of mathematical reasoning.
3. Personality Variables: Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of solving complex math
problems even when you experience setbacks. Students who have high self-efficacy generally experience less anxiety as they are committed to reaching their goals and they believe they can get there eventually. Conversely, students with low math self-efficacy don't think they can be successful so they become anxious at the thought of yet another failure they will experience when given a math problem to solve.
Eden, Heine & Jacobs, 2013