Daniel Willingham, whose long-running column “Ask the cognitive scientist” in the American Educator is always worth a read, writes in his blog (here) about math anxiety, reporting on a survey of the literature by Sian Beilock and himself. It’s worth reading the blog post, which serves as a sort of executive summary, and then following the link to the full article, which provides all the references. Math anxiety can impair a student’s math ability, leading to a positive (reinforcing) feedback loop — if you’re not confident of your skill, you are more likely to get anxious, and the worry about whether you can do the math occupies valuable processing space in short-term memory, which interferes with the skill that you do have. Where does doubt about one’s math ability come from? Well, if you’re in a society like ours, in which “innate ability” and rapid success are favored seen as key to math success, rather than effort and and learning from one’s mistakes — one can get negative messages from early on in one’s encounter with math. Some people get negative messages if they are girls, or poor, or members of marginalized groups. The vicious cycle can get have a lot of starting points. There is some evidence that students with larger working memories, and therefore (as the authors say) more cognitive horsepower, can be inhibited more than one might predict, because they “tend to rely on more advanced problem-solving strategies,” which make more demands on working memory, and are therefore more vulnerable to the demands of worrying,
Beilock and Bellingham suggest: • work to help students gain success with basic skills, • change the way assessments are done, so as to encourage effort and learning from mistakes, and • giving students a little time to write about how they are feeling as they approach an anxiety-provoking task, which seems to help overcome some of the fear.
This leaves me with some questions: First, in your work, how do you reckon with math anxiety? If you are a science educator, how do you encounter and overcome math anxiety? Finally, do science students experience “science anxiety”? If so, does it have similar roots? What might be strategies to overcome it?