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University of Chicago researchers uncover strategies for overcoming math anxiety

Math anxiety

Scientists at the University of Chicago used brain-imaging technology to examine how some people with math anxiety (tension, apprehension and fear about solving math problems) are able to succeed in spite of their fears--not all math-anxious individuals, the researchers note, perform equally poorly in math.

University of Chicago PhD student Ian Lyons and Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology, reported their findings in an article entitled "Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math from the Anxiety," which was published on October 20 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The researchers found a strong link between success in math and activity in the sections of the brain, which are involved in controlling and regulating negative emotional reactions – instead of worrying about a math problem, students who were able to focus (not just on the math problem itself, but also on controlling their emotions) were better able to complete math problems.

After filling out a questionnaire designed to find college students with math anxiety, selected students were asked to perform difficult math problems and spelling tasks while having their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Some non-math-anxious college students were also included as a control group.

Math-anxious college students only answered 68 percent of math problems correctly, while those who showed the strongest activation got 83 percent correct. The control group of non-math-anxious college students got 88 percent correct.

Overcoming math anxiety

"Essentially, overcoming math anxiety appears to be less about what you know and more about convincing yourself to just buckle down and get to it," Beilock explained.

Beilock and Lyons say the research indicates that teaching students to control their emotions when facing a challenging math problem may be the best way to help them overcome math anxiety. Just providing those students with additional instruction in math, they say, would be comparatively ineffective.

And the experience of trying to solve a math problem, the researchers say, is completely different for those with and without math anxiety. "Think about walking across a suspension bridge if you're afraid of heights versus if you're not – completely different ballgame," Lyons said.

The point is that handling the emotional aspect of math anxiety seems to be far more important than trying to improve your mathematical skills. "When you let your brain do its job, it usually will," Lyons said. "If doing math makes you anxious, then your first task is to calm yourself down."