Anxiety can even stymie math whizzes

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Even students who perform extremely well on math exams can suffer from anxiety. And the better a student does at math, the more strongly anxiety will drag his or her performance down, new research shows.

And the relationship between anxiety and achievement holds true not just in the United States, but worldwide.

“Math anxiety is disrupting these students’ ability to fulfill their potential,” says Alana Foley, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Chicago. “Even though they’re still doing better than kids who are overall performing lower, they’re not performing as well as they could because they have math anxiety.”

For a new study in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers looked at the findings of 40 different laboratory experiments combined with analysis of data from the Program in International Student Assessments, which administers standardized math tests to 15-year-old students around the world. The lab studies provide insight into the test results, and the test results help contextualize the lab studies.

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“The effects of anxiety are true, even in countries that we think of as being really high-performing in math—Singapore, Korea, Japan, China,” says coauthor Julianne Herts, a doctoral student in psychology. “Even students in those countries who perform very well in math and score very high on tests still show this relation. That’s something we didn’t know would be the case.”

Why does anxiety have such a hold? To do math, we need to be able to hold information in our minds and manipulate and remember it, behavioral and neuroimaging studies suggest.

“The students who normally do really well have a large capacity to hold information in their minds and use advanced strategies that require a lot of cognitive resources,” Foley says. “But when they’re math anxious, the anxiety and the emotion system of the brain interfere with their ability to hold onto information, so they end up performing much worse than they otherwise would if they weren’t anxious.”

Being told that symptoms associated with anxiety, such as a rapid heartbeat, can actually help them do well, may help student performance, says coauthor Sian Beilock, professor of psychology.

“Research also shows anxious students’ performance improves when they write about their feelings before taking a test. Externalizing the anxiety seems to help alleviate its deleterious effects,” Beilock adds.

No intervention can be expected to work in every culture, Herts says. “We have to look at how math anxiety might operate differently in different countries, even though it has the same effect.”

Researchers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris are coauthors of the study. The Overdeck Family Foundation, National Science Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, and the US Department of Education funded the work.

Source: University of Chicago