How to Overcome Math Anxiety
Breaking free from the vicious cycle of worry and failure
Posted March 4, 2017
In his autobiography, psychologist S. S. Stevens (1974) relates how he spent his undergraduate years at Stanford assiduously avoiding math and sciences classes. He enjoyed the humanities, especially philosophy, writing, and debating. However, as senior year rolled around, he realized his liberal arts education had taught him “to talk about anything, but to do nothing” (p. 402). So he signed up for some freshman science classes and made a successful application to Harvard Medical School. But when he got there, he was daunted by the math requirement, so his adviser recommended he switch to psychology.
Wandering through the psychology building, Stevens happened upon a middle-aged man crunching numbers by hand and plotting the results on a graph. He said the data fit a power function, but Stevens responded that he didn’t know much math. The man looked at him sternly and said: “The only way to get over an inferiority complex about mathematics is to learn some” (p. 404).That man, as it turned out, was the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner.
Stevens took Skinner’s advice to heart and learned some math. He then went on to have an illustrious career in psychology, first as a graduate student and later as a professor at Harvard. And every one of his contributions to psychology, from his “theory of scales” to what is now known as Steven’s power law, are all mathematically based.
If you find yourself getting tense just thinking about math, you’re not alone. Many people suffer from math anxiety. And until recently, most people could find jobs that didn’t require any sort of math beyond basic arithmetic. But in the technologically driven 21st century, higher-level math skills are becoming increasingly important.
To learn more about the math anxiety-performance relationship, University of Chicago psychologist Alana Foley led a team of international researchers who looked at mathematics education in 64 countries. They measured average math performance and average reported math anxiety for each country, and they found, as expected, that there’s a tendency for math performance to go up when math anxiety goes down. For example, students in Switzerland reported low math anxiety, and their math scores were fairly high. By comparison, students in Thailand exhibited high math anxiety and fairly low math scores.
What’s not clear from these data, however, is what comes first. Does math anxiety lead to lower performance, or does difficulty in learning math lead to anxiety? One piece of the puzzle may be a cluster of seven school systems that don’t follow the trend, in that they are the highest ranked in terms of math performance, and yet their students also report high levels of math anxiety. In other words, it’s possible for students to feel anxious about a math test and still do well on it.
In case you’re wondering, these top seven are all in East Asia. Students in Shanghai, China scored the highest of all 64 locations, but their level of anxiety was also higher than in the United States. The rest of the top seven were: Hong Kong, Singapore, Macao, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. As Foley and her colleagues point out, these seven locations are highly competitive, with large numbers of students vying for a very limited number of seats at national universities. So, at least in this case, math anxiety may be due more to competition than performance.
Despite all the hand-wringing about why Americans can’t do math, the United States compares fairly well with other countries. For example, math performance is similar in the U.S. and the Russian Federation, but Russian students experience a lot more math anxiety. In fact, Americans report a lot less math anxiety than you’d expect from looking at the trend line in the data. By comparison, Canadian students perform better at math but experience higher-than-expected anxiety.
In the end, the researchers conclude that the math performance-anxiety relationship is bidirectional. That is, poor performance can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can lead to poor performance, thus creating a vicious circle. So the question then becomes how to help students break free of the performance-anxiety vortex. Or better still, how do we help them avoid the trap all together?
Foley and colleagues report on several studies in India and the United States that suggest math anxiety is learned—not from personal experience but from parents and teachers. The Indian study found that when parents with high math anxiety tried to help their children with their homework, they unintentionally conveyed the idea that math is difficult and anxiety-provoking. The American study found that the level of math anxiety first-graders reported depended on how math-phobic their teacher was. In other words, children read the subtle body cues of their elders to determine whether math is something to fear—or to feel good about.
Other research has looked at the cognitive reappraisal of emotions. For example, research participants scored better on a GRE math test when they first read about a supposed study showing that anxiety improves performance. Also, when students are allowed to write out or discuss their math anxiety first, they tend to do better on the test. In brief, people generally are no longer overwhelmed by their anxieties once they understand these feelings are normal and that they can be controlled.
I suspect the lackluster performance of math students in the United States is due, at least in part, to the way it’s taught. I remember being bored to tears in my high school algebra and geometry classes, and like S. S. Stevens I assiduously avoided math courses in college. I also I fell into psychology late in my graduate career. But once I’d decided to be a student of human behavior, I learned the statistics, calculus, and computer programming I needed to do my research.
You might think Skinner was being smug when he told Stevens to go learn a little math. But if you think he must have been one of those nerds who always found math easy, you’re wrong. Like Stevens, Skinner came to psychology late, only after a failed career as a novelist. And it was only then that he learned the math he needed to analyze his data.
Just like any other skill, you can learn to do math if you need to use it. Instead of telling our kids (and ourselves) that math is hard, we need to show them how relevant these skills are in the high-tech lives they’re living.
Foley, A. E., Herts, J. B., Borgonovi, Guerriero, S., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2017). The math anxiety-performance link: A global phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 52-58.
Stevens, S. S. (1974). S. S. Stevens. In Lindzey, G. A history of psychology in autobiography, Vol. VI, The Century psychology series. (pp. 395-420). Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice-Hall, Inc. doi: 10.1037/11553-013