If long division or finding the lowest common denominator makes your kids’ palms sweat, it may be a case math anxiety. And scientists are finding it’s a condition many students around the world are experiencing.
Psychologists at Western University studied data from more than one million students across the globe and found not only is math anxiety a real phenomenon but as a result, performance is also greatly affected.
Student perception of teacher competence and parental homework involvement are both revealed as important predictors of math anxiety in the new global study, led by Western postdoctoral researcher Nathan Tsz Tan Lau, which was published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“Our study shows math anxiety is very much a human condition, which is experienced by students all around the world,” said Lau. “Math anxiety is clearly related to math achievement, and in virtually all countries that we’ve examined, those children with higher math anxiety are also children who have lower math achievement.”
For decades, the correlation between math anxiety and math achievement has been examined by psychologists and educators. This new study shows math anxiety experienced by a student’s classmates could also influence individual math achievement.
“If you have low math anxiety, but you’re in a high math anxiety classroom, because of the teacher’s ability or inexperience, or even the other students, you’re more likely to have lower math achievement,” said Lau. “The emotional climate in the context within which you learn greatly influences math achievement.”
“If we want to try to understand math anxiety, we have to not only understand the individual student, but also the context within which they are learning,” said Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning and senior author of the study. “How students view their teachers, how much homework they’re doing, how much they study with their parents, and how math anxious their peers are – it’s all important.”
The study also shows a student’s perception of the teacher’s efficiency in teaching math affects the student’s level of anxiousness about the subject in the classroom. A teacher’s confidence in teaching mathematics is related to student math anxiety.
Ansari and Lau found the more parents are involved with homework, and how much homework teachers assign, the higher math anxiety the child experiences. But Ansari isn’t quite ready to say it’s a causal relation.
“We can’t really say whether or not it is the parents helping their kids with homework that leads to higher math anxiety,” said Ansari. “It could be the other way around that the students who are already struggling, require more help from parents. We need to do more research, but it is a surprising finding nonetheless.”
While math anxiety is real and very much a concern, it doesn’t have to equate to persistent difficulties with math.
Ansari is an international expert on dyscalculia, the specific learning disabilities that affect a child’s ability to understand, learn and perform math and number-based operations. He said while there is a relationship between math anxiety and math achievement, the two things are not the same. And that’s good news for students and parents.
“If a child has math anxiety, don’t assume that they’re not good at math. They may have had a really bad experience with math and there are ways to improve math achievement,” said Ansari. “Students with math anxiety are not cognitively disadvantaged. Math anxiety is not another term for dyscalculia. These are two separate issues.”