Overcoming the Math Anxiety Response
In June, I wrote an article, “Math Anxiety: Conquering Students’ Fear of Math
,” about evidence that math anxiety can reduce math performance. Another brain study by Sian L. Beilock, associate psychology professor at the University of Chicago, and doctoral candidate Ian M. Lyons takes these findings one step further. The study
, published in Cerebral Cortex
, investigated what brain activities allowed some math-anxious individuals to overcome their anxiety while others struggled and performed poorly.
The authors found that math performance faltered most when students were unable to exert cognitive control to subdue their emotional response to the math problem. These apparent math deficits did not necessarily reflect an individual’s ability or skills. Some students who identified themselves as math-anxious were able to suppress anxiety activity in the amygdala, and these subjects performed better on the math tasks. They exhibited more activity in the areas of the brain dedicated to focus and regulating negative emotions. The determining factor in performance had more to do with how a student’s brain responded to anxiety than how much anxiety the math problem initially triggered.
How can we help students reduce their math anxiety?
In a recent New York Times Opinionator article, Michael Bornstein outlines the Positive Coaching Alliance’s “ELM Tree of Mastery.” The tree focuses on ways for children to exert cognitive control over their performance. Conceptualized by Jim Thompson, a teacher, coach, and founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, it is highly applicable to teaching as well. Students need to realize that they hold control over three ELM factors crucial to success: their level of Effort, Learning from experiences, and how they respond to Mistakes. Additionally, children need positive feedback so that they do not fear mistakes. Positive feedback fills students’ “emotional tank” so that they become less emotionally depleted and experience less anxiety as a result.
This “ELM Tree of Mastery” could help to improve students’ sense of control and cognitive function. If teachers can challenge students to develop the three skills outlined in the tree, the result may be less fear of math and a more can-do attitude in approaching it. Learning to control the negative emotions and thoughts associated with math will improve performance and allow students to reach their true potential.