How many times have we heard people say ‘I am not a numbers person’ or ‘Math gives me the jitters’? Many times, it would seem. Math anxiety is, at the very basic level, a fear of using numbers in any form, be it calculating or understanding concepts through numbers and data, large or small.
The Mathematical Association of America has said that according to some estimates, 93% of American adults experience some form of Math anxiety. Math anxiety has been studied by psychologists and scientists for years, the first such identification of ‘number anxiety’ going way back to 1957.
An initial understanding of Math anxiety tried to separate it from general anxiety and performance. If we are confident in Math, we perform better at it. The Program for International Student Assessment conducted a massive global study of 15-year-old students across 64 countries in 2012. The study found that Math anxiety was negatively related to Math performance. Students with high levels of Math anxiety performed poorly in the subject compared to those who displayed lower levels of anxiety. The Math anxiety lights up a fear centre in the brain, and it shuts down the problem-solving ability of the student, even though he/she is very capable.
Math anxiety’s negative impact
Math anxiety is very real, and could prevent a student from reaching his/her optimum career potential. The lack of confidence in Math, and the early years of negative beliefs about one’s innate ability with numbers is known to lead to a persistent anxiety that is prevalent throughout one’s student years and even later. As a result, many students hesitate to choose STEM, instead opting for subjects that do not involve Math. Even though they may have a great ability to grasp complicated concepts, and the intellect to solve problems, students evade STEM subjects so as not to deal with numbers on a daily basis.
Several studies show that math anxiety seems to be higher in females than in males, although gender-related differences regarding math performance are small or non-existent. This illustrates that math anxiety has a gender bias due to the impact of gender stereotypes. These stereotypes generate subconscious self-barriers among girls, who regard themselves as less capable of performing well in math and STEM.
Math at work
As the future of work demands more use of Big Data, analytics and quantifying human experiences, the need for talent in numbers is only set to increase. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that between 2016 and 2026, there will be a 28% increase in occupations that use math heavily. This means that students who are comfortable with Math can lean into these professions and have better job prospects. But what about those dealing with Math anxiety? It will be a choice of facing the anxiety and overcoming it, or finding other occupations that do not need Math.
Overcoming Math anxiety
The love (or the hate) for Math has seeds sown in childhood. Parents and teachers have a crucial role to play in making math fun for children. They can do this by ensuring that their own anxiety, if any, is not transferred to the child.
It is also important to break stereotypes and imaginaries concerning math: We need to overturn the perception that maths is a difficult, boring and men-concerning subject.
Parents can be conscious of introducing Math concepts of problem-solving in everyday life situations. Math should be positioned as a fun subject through games, puzzles and fun activities that take the fear out of using numbers and calculation. Also, schools and institutions must perform a task to draw attention to women role models in STEM.
Technology can help make Math fun in the larger context of game-playing, problem-solving and fun-based learning activities. Apps and websites with an interactive experience can appeal to students’ achievement goals, therefore reducing the fear of numbers.
Dealing with Math anxiety demands a holistic societal approach with increased awareness at all points of interaction in a student’s upbringing – home, school, education system and peer group. The good news is that Math anxiety is increasingly being recognised as a psychological problem. The solutions are forthcoming, too, if we are willing to pay attention.
- npr.org: Math anxiety is real. Here’s how to help your child avoid it.
- girlsschool.org: The math-anxiety performance link. A global phenomenon.
- Frontiers in psychology: Gender differences regarding the impact of math anxiety on arithmetic performance in second and fourth graders
- Harvard business Review: Americans need to get over their fear of math.