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How is Mathematics Anxiety Affecting America?
Since the 1960’s, the mathematics abilities of American students have deteriorated compared to those of students from other world powers. A recent study has shown, however, that mathematics performance depends more on education and attitude rather than inborn genetic talent (Kimball & Smith, 2013). Some researchers theorize that America’s mathematical inadequacy stems from poor mathematics education and a cynical attitude toward mathematics in general (Korbey, 2013). “Mathematics anxiety” is the accepted term described by Erin Maloney and Sian Bielock as “an adverse emotional reaction to math or the prospect of doing math” (2012). This attitude has permeated not only primary and secondary schools, but universities, workplaces, and daily life. It is common to hear students almost willingly admit to their assumed incapacities in mathematics, but this mindset has spread as far as scholars, such as David Yaffe, who wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I’m an English professor, and I suck at math” (2013). Examining mathematics anxiety and its causes, specifically its self-fulfilling characteristics and the effect of math-anxious female teachers on female students, reveals a correlation with a low ratio of women to men in the STEM fields. This correlation has motivated educators to revamp mathematics education in attempt to reduce math anxiety in the United States.
Mathematics anxiety frequently hinders students who would otherwise be successful in mathematics. To their detriment, these students believe that they do not possess the same innate abilities as other students (Maloney & Bielock, 2012). In primary school, students are generally taught the same amount of basic math. Unfortunately, mathematics anxiety begins to develop as students take their first formal mathematics exams in middle school. The test results clearly match each student’s preparation for the exam. Math is objective, so students who do poorly on this exam will compare themselves to those who did well, not realizing that those students were simply well prepared. The dilemma occurs as the underperforming students identify themselves with the phrase, “I’m just not good at math” (Kimball & Smith, 2013). From this point on, students have created an excuse that justifies decreased motivation to prepare for mathematics exams. This self-fulfilling prophecy causes students to avoid approaching math with “perseverance, tenacity, and fearlessness,” which is the attitude necessary for students to succeed (Schwartz, 2006).
Several studies have shown that conditioning towards mathematics anxiety begins during primary school. A higher ratio of students in the classrooms of math-anxious teachers graduate from these classes exhibiting math anxiety. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is especially adverse to girls in the classrooms of female math-anxious teachers (Maloney & Bielock, 2012). The study “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement” details the mathematics abilities, attitudes and held stereotypes of boys and girls in classrooms of math-anxious teachers. Girls in the classes of math-anxious female teachers graduated from the class with lagging mathematics abilities and believed that only boys were good at math. In general, boys’ mathematics abilities were not affected by the female teachers with math anxiety, but these boys held the belief that boys are better at math than girls (Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez & Levine, 2009).
The fact that females are discouraged from mathematics early in their education is a direct cause for the low number of women who pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees in college. Few women gain the confidence in mathematics they feel is necessary to compete with men in the STEM fields (Pollack, 2013). It is appalling and unfortunate that women continue to have little confidence in their math abilities. Much of the fallacy surrounding the mathematics gender stereotype was revealed in a study of males and females who took a “gender fair” mathematics exam. Half of the participants in the study were given a standardized mathematics exam without being told it was “gender fair.” The women under-performed the men by 60%. The results signal that the women were much less confident in their abilities than the men during the exam. The other group of participants was told that the exam they were taking was “gender fair.” In this case, the women’s scores doubled, and the men’s scores dropped by 20%, resulting in the men and women receiving the same scores (“Mind over math,” 2001). Obviously, the attitude that the participants had toward the test severely affected their test scores.
Women who decide to pursue higher education frequently exhibit increased mathematics anxiety. It is common that women who do not study a STEM field will avoid taking mathematics classes, thus reducing their mathematics potential (Schwartz, 2006). Those who do pursue a STEM degree typically receive little support from professors and advisors, as described by Eileen Pollack (2013). Dr. Pollack, now a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, attended MIT for an undergraduate degree in physics. Dr. Pollack did not pursue graduate school in physics for the very reason that she was never encouraged by the all-male faculty. Despite performing exceptionally well and completing an undergraduate thesis, Pollack never received acknowledgment of her achievements. Pollack also discusses the finding that a woman is less likely to be hired at a research institution despite having the same qualifications as a male applicant. She will also, on average, be paid $4,000 less than the male’s starting salary. Intriguingly, it was discovered that female and male employers made these decisions equally. In recent years, this trend has been declining, yet it may take several decades to abate this gender stereotype.
It is obvious that the mathematics gender stereotype is deeply ingrained within American society and greatly affects the success of students under the pressure of mathematics anxiety. For this reason, measures are being taken to reduce students’ math anxiety and prevent this attitude from spreading further. Recently, studies compared the psychology of education in America with that of other countries, specifically China, Japan, and Korea. In America, the common belief is that intelligence is static. The people of the Asian countries mentioned above, on the other hand, tend to believe in the ability to increase intelligence through hard work. These cultures are also more accepting of criticism and use it as a tool to improve, whereas criticism is seen as degrading and annoying in the United States. For these reasons, it seems that mathematics anxiety is less prevalent in China, Japan, and Korea (Kimball & Smith, 2013).
It has been suggested by mathematics professor Arthur E. Schwartz that the American education system needs to foster students to experience the benefits of hard work and perseverance. Modeling the Asian educational foundations, researchers organized small groups of minority students and informed them that that their intelligence was “highly malleable.” With continual encouragement, the students became convinced that hard work would improve their grades. By the end of the experiment, the students had increased their grades, with the greatest increase seen in those students who had believed intelligence was simply genetic (Kimball & Smith, 2013). Specifically, students need to learn that the best way to approach mathematics is with perseverance and willingness to be incorrect before entirely understanding a concept. Even Einstein stated that he was frequently incorrect but able to solve complex problems because he “stay[ed] with problems longer” (Schwartz, 2006).
Currently, teachers implement several methods to reduce mathematics anxiety in the classroom. As the previously discussed study shows, informing students of their ability to improve their grades reduces mathematics anxiety by giving the students the motivation to persevere through problem sets. Some teachers, however, feel that mathematics anxiety will decrease if the students are assigned fewer problems. Unfortunately, reduced amount of practice leads to decreased understanding and retention of the material (Kimball & Smith, 2013). Schools have also increased the amount of education that is provided on test taking strategies. Students learn efficient study methods and how to recognize and cope with anxiety. Encouraging students to write or talk about their anxiety over an exam has also been shown to positively influence performance (Beilock & Maloney, 2012).
Although these efforts reduce students’ anxiety over exams, a great deal of criticism is directed toward the methods of mathematics instruction that students receive in secondary school. Every teacher in America has his or her own teaching style, yet some seem to be more effective than others. Professor Manil Suri urges that students be exposed to the “beauty of math” in the natural world instead of forcing students to complete countless computations. Fostering an interest in the applications of math and how it can be used to solve real-world problems, he believes, will reduce math anxiety and optimize performance (Korbey, 2013). Professor Arthur Schwartz also believes that less focus should be spent on computational work. Undergraduate math majors learn in their first abstract mathematics course that math is much less about numbers than it is about critical thinking. Schwartz desires to teach students to think critically much earlier in their education. By focusing mathematics education on writing proofs and expanding students’ knowledge of why math works, he believes that students will be less anxious when approached with relatively simple computations (2006). Unequivocally, it is agreed that mathematics education needs to be revamped in order to present mathematics as an invigorating field and a necessary skill to possess in modern society.
Mathematicians nationwide are working tirelessly to reduce the negative attitudes and dwindling abilities that America’s students currently exhibit. Mathematics anxiety is a detrimental attitude that needs to be reduced, if not eliminated. Professors Miles Kimball and Noah Smith believe that the notion of not being “a math person” is the most self-destructive attitude in America today (2013). By succumbing to mathematics anxiety, students reduce their potential to acquire some of the most secure and well-paying jobs. Mathematics anxiety also reduces students’ ability to process complex situations outside mathematics. Researchers worry that America is becoming decreasingly perseverant and motivated, signaling a decrease in our nation’s productivity and ability to be competitive worldwide. For these reasons, mathematics anxiety and the reformation of mathematics education are receiving increased attention (Kimball & Smith, 2013). If America desires to compete successfully in the global arena of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, then students need to be relieved from mathematics anxiety.
Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2006). Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 107(5), 1860-1863. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0910967107
Kimball, M., & Smith, N. (2013). There's one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don't. http://qz.com/139453/theres-one-key-difference-between-kids-who-excel-at-math-and-those-who-dont/
Korbey, H. (2013). Finding the beauty in math. MindShift. Retrieved from KQED Public Media for Northern California website: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/10/finding-the-beauty-in-math/
Maloney, E. A., & Beilock, S. L. (2012). Math anxiety: who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(8), 404-406. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2012.06.008
Mind over math. (10 Jun 2001). Washington Post, p. B05.
Pollack, E. (2013). Why are there still so few women in science? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&smid=fb-nytimes&
Schwartz, A. E. (2006). Learning math takes attitude, perseverance, and courage. Education Digest, 71(7), 50.
Yaffe, D. (2013). Ah, the unhumanities! The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/10/31/ah-the-unhumanities/