Math anxiety causes trouble for students as early as first grade

September 12, 2012, University of Chicago

Many high-achieving students experience math anxiety at a young age—a problem that can follow them throughout their lives, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

In a study of first- and second-graders, Sian Beilock, professor in psychology, found that students report worry and fear about doing math as early as . Most surprisingly math anxiety harmed the highest-achieving students, who typically have the most , Beilock and her colleagues found.

"You can think of working memory as a kind of 'mental scratchpad' that allows us to 'work' with whatever information is temporarily flowing through consciousness," Beilock said. "It's especially important when we have to do a and juggle numbers in our head. Working memory is one of the major of IQ."

Worries about math can disrupt working memory, which students could otherwise use to succeed. Beilock and other scholars have studied this impact of anxiety on working memory on older students, but her current work is the first to explore the impact on students as they begin school.

The findings are published in the article, "Math Anxiety, Working Memory and in Early Elementary School," in early preview on the website of the Journal of Cognition and Development. The lead author is UChicago PhD candidate Gerardo Ramirez. Joining he and Beilock in the work are UChicago postdoctoral scholar Elizabeth Gunderson and Susan Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology.

The team showed that a high degree of math anxiety undermined performance of otherwise successful students, placing them almost half a behind their less anxious peers, in terms of math achievement.

Less talented students with lower working memory were not impacted by anxiety, because they developed simpler ways of dealing with , such as counting on their fingers. Ironically, because these lower-performing students didn't use working memory much to solve math problems, their performance didn't suffer when worried.

"Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement by changing students' attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence," Beilock writes in the article.

For the study, the researchers tested 88 first-graders and 66 second-graders from a large urban school system. The students were tested to measure their academic abilities, their working memory and their fear of mathematics. They were asked, on a sliding scale, how nervous they felt to go to the front of the room and work on a mathematics problem on the board.

The study found that among the highest-achieving students, about half had medium to high math anxiety. Math anxiety was also common among low-achieving students, but it did not impact their performance.

Fortunately, there is hope for alleviating the negative impact of math anxiety on math achievement. "When anxiety is regulated or reframed, students often see a marked increase in their math performance," the researchers write.

One way to reframe anxiety is to have students write about their worries regarding math ahead of time.

A procedure termed "expressive writing" helps students to download worries and minimizes anxiety's effects on working memory. The researchers speculate that, for younger students, expressive picture drawing, rather than writing, may also help lessen the burden of math anxiety. Teachers can also help reframe their approach by helping them to see exams as a challenge rather than as a threat, the researchers write.

Beilock is also an author of "Math Anxiety, Who Has it, Why it Develops and How to Guard Against it," published in the current issue of Trends in Science (Tics). The article, co-written with UChicago postdoctoral scholar Erin Maloney, points out that math anxiety has a variety of sources.

"Its development is probably tied to both social factors, such as a teachers' and parents' anxiety about their own math ability and a student's own numerical and spatial competencies," they write.

Explore further: Elementary school women teachers transfer their fear of doing math to girls

Related Stories

Researchers probe causes of math anxiety

May 19, 2011

Math problems make more than a few students - and even teachers - sweat, but new brain research is providing insights into the earliest causes of the anxiety so often associated with mathematics.

Recommended for you

Study sheds new light on ancient human-turkey relationship

January 17, 2018

For the first time, research has uncovered the origins of the earliest domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico. The study also suggests turkeys weren't only prized for their meat—with demand for the birds soaring with the Mayans ...

Lifting barriers to citizenship for low-income immigrants

January 15, 2018

Taking the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony is an emotional moment for many immigrants, and for good reason: it is the culmination of an often arduous process and many years of striving. Citizenship also opens ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2012
Please look under "causes" at the Wiki page: http://en.wikiped..._anxiety

"Additionally, the subject is often taught as if there were a right way to solve the problem and any other approaches would be wrong, even if students got the right answer..."

More often than not, the teachers are at fault for causing math anxiety in their students.
not rated yet Sep 12, 2012
I was the new boy in school. Each morning the teacher quizzed on multiplication tables, a concept quite new to me.
"Three times four," said teacher.
"Seventy two," said I.
"Wrong, stand on your chair for the second round of questioning."
I also got the second question wrong.
For three successive days my first answer was, "Seventy two."
On the fourth day teacher said, "Nine times eight."
All heads turned to face me.
"Forty eight," I said, to howls of laughter.
I was sent out of the room, along with the most beautiful girl in the class whose task was to tutor me.
Thank you beautiful girl.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.