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Maths Anxiety - Research

Schoolboy Struggling with Math ProblemsDefinitions of Maths Anxiety

Mathematics anxiety has been defined as .....

.....feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations Math anxiety can cause one to forget and lose one’s self-confidence...

- Tobias, S. (1993). Overcoming math anxiety. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

“A feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance” - Mark H. Ashcraft, Ph.D.

Stanford University School of Medicine

Maths anxiety was first identified in the 1950’s.  It is not a new phenomenon, but it is only now just being studied.

Researchers at Stanford University, School of Medicine have found that anxiety elicited when confronted with math problems is similar to other forms of anxiety.

A series of scans conducted while 7- 9-year old children did addition and subtraction revealed that those who feel panicky about doing maths had increased activity in brain regions associated with fear, which caused decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving.

In order to gain a perspective on the developmental origins of the problem, Menon’s team decided to study young children, ages 7- 9-year old.

The study subjects were ranked by their scores and divided into high and low math anxiety groups for comparison.

They had similar IQ scores, working memory, reading and maths abilities, and generalized anxiety levels.

“The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety,” said Vinod Menon Ph.D., the Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the research.

“It’s remarkable that, although the phenomena was first identified over 50 years back, nobody had bothered to ask how math anxiety manifests itself in terms of neural activity,” Menon said.

His team’s observations show that math anxiety is neurobiologically similar to other kinds of anxiety or phobias, he said. “You cannot just wish it away as something that’s unreal. Our findings validate math anxiety as a genuine type of stimulus- and situation-specific anxiety.”

The two groups also showed differences in performance: Children with high math anxiety were less accurate and significantly slower at solving math problems than children with low math anxiety.

“The results are a significant step toward our understanding of brain function during math anxiety and will influence development of new academic interventions,” said Victor Carrion, MD.

Experts believe the research findings may help them develop new strategies for addressing the problem, such as treatments used for generalized anxiety or phobias.

The study is published in Psychological Science.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Information about the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, which also supported this research, is available at http://psychiatry.stanford.edu.

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