Math Anxiety: Overcoming a Major Obstacle to the Improvement of Student Math Performance. (Review of Research)

By Furner, Joseph M.; Berman, Barbara T. | Childhood Education, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Math Anxiety: Overcoming a Major Obstacle to the Improvement of Student Math Performance. (Review of Research)


Furner, Joseph M., Berman, Barbara T., Childhood Education


In today's high-tech, increasingly connected world, it is important that young children build confidence in their ability to do mathematics. This article reviews the literature on preventing and reducing math anxiety. The authors believe that as students become less anxious about and more confident in their abilities to do math, their performance on standardized test scores will improve and they will be better prepared for the future.

Extensive research on math anxiety has tried to determine why so many people in the United States demonstrate a fear or even antipathy toward math. Mathematics anxiety can be defined as an "irrational dread of mathematics that interferes with manipulating numbers and solving mathematical problems within a variety of everyday life and academic situations" (Buckley & Ribordy, 1982, p. 1). The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) (1989) recognizes math anxiety as a problem and established criteria to help assess students' mathematical dispositions. NCTM suggests that teachers assess students':

* Confidence in using math to solve problems, communicate ideas, and reason

* Flexibility in exploring mathematical ideas and trying a variety of methods when solving problems

* Willingness to persevere in mathematical tasks

* Interests, curiosity, and inventiveness in doing math

* Ability to reflect on and monitor their own thinking and performance while doing math

* Focus on value of and appreciation for math in relation to its real-life application, connections to other disciplines, existence in other cultures, use as a tool for learning, and characteristics as a language. (1989, p. 233)

Marilyn Burns (1998), a leading mathematics education expert, contends that two thirds of American adults loathe and fear mathematics. The 1989 Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (aka, the Standards) published by NCTM included suggestions for improving mathematics test scores in elementary and secondary schools across the United States. The NCTM Standards were established as a broad framework to guide reform in school mathematics, not as a specific curriculum. In the NCTM's vision, mathematics teachers would encourage students, probe for ideas, and carefully judge the maturity of a student's thoughts and expressions (NCTM, 1989). By contrast, most current teaching practices in mathematics classrooms do not provide sufficient time for critical thought. In fact, the methods used in mathematics instruction itself seem to play a critical role in shaping attitudes toward math (Jackson & Leffingwell, 1999). Sarason (1993) maintains that any reform in education must first begin with teacher training. Thus, practicing mathematics teachers and preservice teachers need to be trained to implement the NCTM Standards.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that the math scores of U.S. students decline as the students progress from grades 4 to 12 (Schmidt, 1998). According to Callahan, Tomlinson, Reis, and Kaplan (2000), "U.S. 12th-graders who were taking Advanced Placement calculus, when compared with all advanced mathematics students in other nations, performed only at the international average and significantly higher than students in just five other countries" (p. 787). Steen (1999) found that most U.S. students leave high school with far below even the minimum expectations for mathematical understanding and literacy. Educators, parents, and politicians are seeking solutions to this weakness in mathematics.

Causes of Math Anxiety

The causes of math anxiety vary. Negative predispositions may result if a child's parents have a negative attitude toward or limited experience with math. Lower socioeconomic status may mean that the family has not had sufficient exposure to the kind of education and experience that would more likely promote a positive feeling about math. …

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