Banting fellowship adds up for Lyons’ math anxiety research

Paul Mayne

Western Psychology postdoctoral scholar Ian Lyons recently received a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, allowing him to explore the neural mechanisms and influences math anxiety plays during a student’s time at university.

Could your fear of math class, or even the idea of talking about math, impact your academic decisions and overall performance at university?

When it comes to math anxiety, choices as to what courses students take, or even the field of study they choose, may stem from as far back as kindergarten, said Western Psychology postdoctoral fellow Ian Lyons.

“Since you’re dealing with people around 18-19 years old, they’ve already had close to 15 years of educational experience. So, something like math anxiety is already going to be fairly well established at that point,” he continued.

But to what extent it plays a role in shaping the path of a university student has yet to be explored – until now.

Lyons recently received a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship to explore the neural mechanisms and influences math anxiety plays during a student’s time at university. Funding includes $70,000 a year for two years, plus Western and the Department of Psychology are contributing one-time funding of $20,000 and $10,000, respectively, to assist with research expenses.

The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program provides funding to the top postdoctoral students, both nationally and internationally, who are seen to contribute to the country’s economic, social and research‑based growth.

A total 70 fellowship are awarded each year through the Tri-Council agencies, made up of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Lyons, one of 23 NSERC winners, was Western’s only Banting fellow. CIHR funded 24 fellows; SSHRC funded 23.

While math anxiety surfaces in different majors, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors, predictably, have the lowest levels of it. Most alarming, Lyons said, the highest math anxiety levels surface in future elementary school teachers, who then “pass it on to the kids, which can be a little concerning.”

“There is some sense math anxiety is related to academic decisions, but we really don’t know how that really plays out over time,” he added. “This is really the first time some of these individuals really have had control over their education decisions.

“There are certain set courses students have to take, but very soon, they will be allowed to take electives. We want to get a bunch of different measures of math anxiety and see whether or not these predict the actual academic decisions they make. Do they elect to take math courses? If they do, how do they do in those math courses, relative to their other courses?”

Lyons plans to use a variety of measures in his research, including behavioural, neural and even some genetic.

“The genetic contribution seems to be, at most, a little less that half of the debate around math anxiety,” he said. “Which means over half of it is driven by environmental factors.”

Whether those factors are parents, teachers or friends is the interesting equation, added Lyons, who will have initial pre-screening with between 100-200 students, with 40-50 volunteering for MRI work during the study.

He will also look at something as simple as sentences like ‘Jimmy went to his math class’ or ‘Jimmy went to his literature class’ to determine a student’s neural response to simply the discussion of math – let alone actual math.

“We have an idea all these things are probably related, but what’s never been done is bringing people in before they’ve had any experiences in college or university,” he said. “We want to collect all the data in the first year, and essentially be able to track them over the next four years at school.

“All this (Banting) is pretty exciting, and with Western’s first-class imaging, it really brings things together.”