A Real Fear: It's More Than Stage Fright. Math Anxiety Can Derail Academic or Professional Success. but Some Scholars Are Working to Help Students Get over It

By Ruffins, Paul | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Real Fear: It's More Than Stage Fright. Math Anxiety Can Derail Academic or Professional Success. but Some Scholars Are Working to Help Students Get over It


Ruffins, Paul, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


"Math anxiety is my worst enemy," says Dr. Louise Raphael. "I feel that I am teaching the most important mathematics class on the Howard University campus, but my students' fear of math is the toughest battle standing in my way."

Raphael is the author of Math The Easy Way, a parents' guide to helping children learn math. Her students are elementary education majors who plan to teach math. The vast majority of the students are Black and female, which is ironic because the two most researched factors related to math performance and math anxiety are race and gender.

"I continuously have to confront attitudes like, 'Nobody in my whole family can do math,' or 'You know our folks just aren't good at this,'" Raphael says.

A third factor is slowly gaining attention as a possible cause of math anxiety: learning disabilities. Specialists who treat learning disabilities understand how these problems interfere with math skills, but discussions of learning disabilities have largely been absent from the academic research on math anxiety.

Math anxiety's psychological symptoms include feeling nervous before a math class, panicking, going blank during a test or feeling helpless while doing homework. The physiological symptoms include sweaty palms, racing heartbeat or an upset stomach. The symptoms are essentially the same as stage fright, or the "butterflies in the stomach" athletes experience before a game. However, the critical difference between stage fright and math anxiety is that math represents the gateway to almost all forms of higher education and many career opportunities. Because of this, Bob Moses, a veteran of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, has defined math literacy as a civil rights issue and has organized The Algebra Project to help communities organize to demand better math education for low-income children.

For years, mainstream thinking about math anxiety assumed that people fear math because they are bad at it. However, a growing body of research shows a much more complicated relationship between math ability and anxiety. It is true that people who fear math have a tendency to avoid math-related classes, which decreases their math competence. However, many people with an aptitude for math suffer from anxiety that interferes with their ability to perform math-related tasks. In the June 2001 edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Drs. Mark H. Ashcraft and Elizabeth P. Kirk, then at Cleveland State University, showed that anxiety interferes with short-term or "working" memory, which makes it harder to remember and simultaneously manipulate numbers.

Much of the research on math anxiety focuses on Blacks, Hispanics and women, all of whom exist under a societal stereotype that they are inherently less able to understand math and science. Shahid Muhammad, author of How to Teach Math to Black Students, says, "Perception of one's abilities is directly related to academic performance. Since society has distorted and clouded Black students' perceptions to the point that they cannot visualize Black people excelling in and mastering mathematics, they are comfortable with and satisfied with achieving at a below-average or average level in the math classroom."

In 2001, Contemporary Educational Psychology published a study by Dr. Jason W. Osborne of the University of Oklahoma that concluded that cultural stereotypes about ethnicity and gender can severely undermine students' confidence and abilities, particularly on timed tests. In an October 2006 edition of the magazine Science, Dr. Steven J. Heine and Ilan Dar-Nimrod, a professor and graduate student, respectively, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, confirmed Osborne's results. They found that subtle suggestions of whether women's math performance was a function of biology or environmental factors, had a profound impact on their test performance.

Science education writer Sheila Tobias's book, Overcoming Math Anxiety, is widely considered the breakthrough work in the field. …

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