We all know potential doctors who are derailed by organic chemistry
-- or even by pre-algebra. Many of these would-be M.D.s suffer from math
anxiety, which takes various forms: Some students are paralyzed by
numbers altogether, others do just fine on tests of overall competence
but panic when presented with timed aptitude tests or mental
calculations. "Twenty to twenty-five percent of college students I see
have sufficient math anxiety that disrupts their performance," says Mark
Ashcraft, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University
in Ohio. "It's almost unbelievable that tests on such fundamental topics
can be so upsetting."
Ashcraft stresses that math anxiety is distinct from anxiety
generated by testing situations, but "if you're math anxious, there's a
greater likelihood that you're test anxious and maybe also socially
anxious." For most students, math anxiety escalates in junior high
school, when students experience increasing social pressures.
There's also a cognitive rationale for why kids who ace arithmetic
flounder later. Math anxiety, like generalized anxiety, hijacks
short-term or working memory, as intrusive thoughts encroach on the
computations at hand. Tracking a sequence of numbers, such as borrowing
for subtraction or performing long-division problems require working
memory, which increasingly comes into play in higher-level math.
Women are more likely than men to report experiencing "severe" math
anxiety, though they may just be more willing to admit to it. Indeed,
Ashcraft's review of 30 year's worth of literature on the subject,
Current Directions in Psychological Science, found
that more men than women say they are "slightly" math phobic.
Ashcraft speculates that the American belief that mathematical
aptitude is innate, rather than learned, is partly to blame. Teaching
styles may also contribute to math anxiety.
In the first study examining how math teachers' discourse might
encourage avoidant behavior in students, Julie Turner, Ph.D., a professor
of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, found that students
reported that they were afraid to ask for help or learn new
problem-solving techniques when teachers were even slightly negative or
failed to provide positive reinforcement.