Tracing the Roots of Mathematics Anxiety through In-Depth Interviews with Preservice Elementary Teachers

By Trujillo, Karen M.; Hadfield, Oakley D. | College Student Journal, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Tracing the Roots of Mathematics Anxiety through In-Depth Interviews with Preservice Elementary Teachers


Trujillo, Karen M., Hadfield, Oakley D., College Student Journal


Through administration of the Revised Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (R-MARS) to 50 preservice elementary teachers, the five most mathematically anxious were identified. Each of the five identified participants was interviewed with regard to her mathematics experiences in elementary school, high school, college, and family setting. Their perceptions as to the causes of their specific anxieties about mathematics were expressed. Their future plans to deal with their anxieties about teaching mathematics when they join the teaching profession were also voiced. Negative school experiences, lack of family support, and general test anxiety were trends found within the backgrounds of the participants. Despite their current apprehensions regarding the study and teaching of mathematics, most of the subjects were very confident and optimistic as to the possibility of setting aside their fears in order to develop into effective teachers of mathematics themselves.

Over the past 25 years, mathematics anxiety has become a very popular research topic for both mathematics educators and educational psychologists. Mathematics anxiety has been defined as a state of discomfort which occurs in response to situations involving mathematical tasks which are perceived as threatening to self esteem (Cemen, 1987). In turn, these feelings of anxiety can lead to panic, tension, helplessness, fear, distress, shame, inability to cope, sweaty palms, nervous stomach, difficulty breathing, and loss of ability to concentrate (Cemen, 1987; Posamentier & Stepelman, 1990, p. 210). Although only a small proportion of persons suffer from a propensity to experience this condition, it is important to recognize how it can lead to a very debilitating state of mind. Those persons with severe cases of mathematics anxiety are limited in college majors and career choices. There is a particular concern in the case of elementary teachers, because it is has been reported that a disproportionately large percentage experience significant levels of mathematics anxiety (Buhlman & Young, 1982; Levine, 1996). This leads to doubts as to their potential effectiveness in teaching mathematics to young children (Trice & Ogden, 1986).

According to Hadfield and McNeil (1994) the causes of mathematics anxiety can be divided into three areas: environmental, intellectual, and personality factors. Environmental factors include negative experiences in the classroom, parental pressure, insensitive teachers, mathematics presented as rigid sets of rules, and nonparticipatory classrooms (Dossel, 1993; Tobias, 1990). Intellectual factors include being taught with mismatched learning styles, student attitude and lack of persistence, self-doubt, lack of confidence in mathematical ability, and lack of perceived usefulness of mathematics (Cemen, 1987; Miller & Mitchell, 1994). Personality factors include reluctance to ask questions due to shyness, low self esteem, and viewing mathematics as a male domain (Cemen, 1987; Gutbezahl, 1995; Levine, 1995; Miller et al., 1994).

Many researchers attempt to trace the evolution of mathematics anxiety among high school and college students back to their elementary school classroom experiences. When early school experiences get the blame for mathematics anxiety, the elementary teacher is usually labeled as the responsible party. Mathematically anxious teachers are said to pass their anxieties on to their students (Buhlman & Young, 1982). They are also often doubted as to their effectiveness as teachers of mathematics (Hadfield & McNeil, 1994; Kelly & Tomhave, 1985). According to Brush (1981), mathematically anxious teachers tend to use more traditional teaching methods, such as lecture, and concentrate on teaching basic skills rather than concepts. This is contrary to the current movement toward teaching mathematical concepts and problem solving through cooperative learning and projects (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989).

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