“I don’t like spiders and snakes,” say the words of an old country music song, but they might as well say, “I don’t like spiders and snakes and math.” Researchers at Stanford University in California have determined that youngsters with math anxiety show the same neurological reactions to math as people with phobias about spiders and snakes exhibit when they come into contact with these creepy crawlers.
Luckily, these same researchers have determined that, like these phobias, math anxiety can be successfully treated with a therapy called exposure therapy. It exposes the sufferers repeatedly to the thing they fear in a safe environment. In the case of students with math anxiety, the therapy takes the form of one-on-one tutoring that employs a positive approach.
Exploring the Brain
The research team, led by Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, sought to identify a biological basis for math anxiety. Using magnetic resonance imaging, they determined that when children were asked to perform basic calculations, the brain showed increased activity in the amygdala, its major fear centre, and the hippocampus, the structure that aids in the formation of new memories. The heightened activity in the amygdala interfered with the function of the brain regions involved in numerical processing.
“It’s remarkable that, although the phenomena was first identified over 50 years back, nobody had bothered to ask how math anxiety manifests itself in terms of neural activity,” Menon told the Stanford University news service. “Our findings validate math anxiety as a genuine type of stimulus- and situation-specific anxiety.”
It is possible to be good at math and still have math anxiety, but over time, those who are anxious shy away from pursuing advanced mathematics, thus limiting career options. Until recently, little effort had been placed on addressing this problem.
“Math anxiety has been under the radar,” said Kaustubh Supekar, PhD, the lead author of the study, told Science Daily. “People think it will just go away, but for many children and adults, it doesn’t.”
Tutoring to the Rescue
Lessening math anxiety is possible, however, with the help of one-on-one cognitive tutoring, the research indicated.
In their 2015 study, the Stanford team looked at 46 Grade 3 students, a critical age for acquiring basic mathematics skills. They gave each child a test to determine his/her level of math anxiety and separated them into two groups: high anxiety and lower anxiety. They also gave them neuropsychological assessments and required them to complete addition or subtraction problems while undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Next, the children were provided with 22 sessions of one-to-one tutoring that focused on addition and subtraction. All of them showed improvement in addition and subtraction at the end of the tutoring program. The youngsters with high math anxiety had reduced anxiety afterward, while the others didn’t show any difference. A follow-up MRI scan while adding or subtracting indicated that the high-anxiety students no longer displayed activity in their amygdalas, meaning that the tutoring had relieved their anxiety, rather than finding a workaround.
“It’s reassuring that we could help these children reduce anxiety by mere exposure to [math] problems,” Supekar told the Stanford news service.
The tutoring was highly personalized, Menon told National Public Radio. If a child got stuck on a particular concept, the tutor would work with the student to “get beyond the bottleneck in a non-negative, encouraging way.”
The scientists believe that more research is required to determine whether the one-on-one sessions were effective in reducing the typical anxiety partly because the students had no fear of having to perform in front of classmates or others.
Tips for Tutors, Students
Boise State University in Idaho offers a number of useful suggestions for both math tutors and students with math anxiety.
1. Guide the student through the process of doing a math problem by asking leading questions. Avoid doing the problem for the student.
2. Teach concepts, rather than just process to help the student become an independent learner. Students need to understand why something is important, rather than just following steps.
3. Encourage class attendance. Tutoring is a wonderful aid, but it is not a substitute for teaching.
4. Work in conjunction with the teacher. Don’t confuse the student by using different methods for solving problems than the teacher uses in class. Make sure you are on the “same page.”
1. Don’t use self-defeating talk. Give yourself a break! Use positive self-talk when reviewing your math abilities.
2. Don’t consider your questions dumb. There is no shame in not understanding something and there is no such thing as a bad question.
3. Don’t run away from your frustrations. Keep a journal of your math successes, your strengths, your frustrations and areas for further study.