Overcoming Math Anxiety

My high school math teachers would help students overcome anxiety on test days by passing out candy. It might not have worked out as planned: I no longer remember how to work calculus equations, but I still have a soft spot for flavored tootsie rolls.

A new study from the University of Chicago indicates the secret to math-test success may not be sugary rewards, but lessons in controlling anxiety.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers looked at the brain activity of both math-anxious and non-anxious students while having them answer spelling and math questions. In anxious students, math success was highly correlated to the activation of a brain network involving the frontal and parietal lobes. The highly anxious students with the most activation prior to answering the math questions got more answers correct.

The activated brain network does not handle mathematical equations. Rather, it is associated with both motivation and balancing risk and reward.

In contrast, students without math anxiety did not show activation in the frontal-parietal pathway, indicating that they approach math differently (presumably, from a more positive standpoint).

Lead researchers Sian Beilock and Ian Lyons recommend that in order to succeed in math, highly anxious students first need to learn to control the emotions that accompany the anxiety.

Though I’m sure students wouldn’t mind getting candy, too.

–Johanna Goldberg

One response

  1. Hi johanna, I also think that students who are not ready for the exams mostly encounter anxiety due to pressures and stress. For me the candy tactics before exam is good, its another way of refreshing students mind.
    Albert

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