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