When Anxiety Hinders Performance

Math problems are enough to sweat about for teachers and students, but new research has shown that early anxiety is often times associated with math. To be clear, math anxiety is more than just disliking math; someone with math anxiety feels negatively when engaging in activities involving numbers or math skills.

In a recent study, college students were asked to take a math test, and in some individuals, a high-stress response in the hypothalamus was triggered. Anxiety can literally shut off the working memory needed to learn and to solve problems, according to Judy Willis, author of Learning to Love Math.

When first presented with a math problem, a student processes the information through the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, which then categorizes information going to the part of the brain for working memory and critical thinking. When stressed, there is more activity in the emotional portion than there is in the critical thinking portion of the brain. In non-stressful environments, students with more opportunities to learn within the math program had the highest performance, but in stressful situations, the same otherwise promising students performed poorly.

 Additionally, children are skillful at identifying what number in a series is bigger for example, but those with high math anxiety are slower and less accurate. Brain scans show that activity is different for children with low math stress doing the same tasks. Eugene A. Geist, author of Children are Born Mathematicians, works with math teachers to create classrooms free of stress. He advises teachers to teach their students to focus on learning math processes and less on relying on the correct answers to boost their confidence when faced with problems. [1]


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