Mentors can help students overcome math anxiety

Posted by Mark Peters

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.

“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.”

Bottom Line for Mentors and Programs

The present study offers opportunities for mentors and programs to further support youth in their academic efforts. This is particularly salient for academic mentoring programs. While ensuring a solid grasp of the material is always going to be important in academic achievement, this research highlights the importance of understanding and managing emotions that can lead to anxiety and poor performance.

Integrating tips for helping youth and adolescents manage their anxiety and stress around math and other academic areas can enable students to better apply the knowledge and skills they’ve worked to attain through study and practice. It is also interesting to note that these effects impact high-performing students even more strongly. In other words, just because your mentee has a strong understanding of math doesn’t mean they will perform up to their potential if they are anxious about testing.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to help reduce anxiety in children and adolescents around testing. Address the issue openly and honestly. Having a candid conversation with your mentee can be a great way to let them know that you are interested in not just what they know, but how they feel. The Child Mind Institute has a helpful article on practical steps you can help your mentee take to reduce their anxiety around testing and perform better, demonstrating the knowledge they’ve gained to the fullest extent.

To access the original research article, click here.