Happy Pi Day: Latest Research Takes a Bite Out of Math Anxiety

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Goldin-Meadow Lab

The Division of the Social Sciences is celebrating Pi Day by bringing you a round up of research on "math anxiety" (yes, we believe you — it's really painful!) and some practical advice on how to overcome it:

  1. Math Anxiety is real and it physically hurts
    Mathematics anxiety can prompt a response in the brain similar to when a person experiences physical pain, according to research at the University of Chicago. Using brain scans, scholars determined that the brain areas active when highly math-anxious people prepare to do math overlap with the same brain areas that register the threat of bodily harm—and in some cases, physical pain.

  2. Math Anxiety is contagious and you can pass it on to your kids
    A team of researchers led by UChicago psychologists Sian Beilock and Susan Levine found that children of math-anxious parents learned less math over the school year and were more likely to be math-anxious themselves—but only when these parents provided frequent help on the child’s math homework. 

  3. It starts early and in the highest performing students
    Many high-achieving students experience math anxiety at a young age — a problem that can follow them throughout their lives, new research at the University of Chicago shows. In a study of first- and second-graders, Sian Beilock, professor in psychology, found that students report worry and fear about doing math as early as first grade. Most surprisingly math anxiety harmed the highest-achieving students, who typically have the most working memory, Beilock and her colleagues found.

  4. The first step to overcoming Math Anxiety may be learning to control your emotions
    Instead of feeling anxious about an impending math task, students who could focus their attention were able to complete difficult math problems more successfully. Perhaps counter-intuitively, their success wasn’t just about activating areas of the brain involved in math calculation. For math-anxious individuals to succeed, they need to focus on controlling their emotions.

  5. Incorporate math into storytime with Bedtime Math
    Adding math talk to story time at home is a winning equation for children’s math achievement, according to new research from the University of Chicago. The new findings demonstrate that structured, positive interactions around math at home can cut the link between parents’ uneasiness about math and children’s low math achievement.

  6. Use Hand Gestures When Solving problems
    Children who use their hands to gesture during a math lesson gain a deep understanding of the problems they are taught, according to research from the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology. Specifically, use of abstract gestures is a powerful tool for helping children understand and generalize mathematical concepts.