Thursday, March 1, 2007

Is Math Anxiety Caused by More than Lack of Practice and Skill?

You may have to register first, but you might want to link to the article Understanding Math Anxiety in a recent edition of Teacher Magazine. I would be interested in the perspectives of both math classroom teachers and those outside of the profession. Many teachers I've spoken to feel that anxiety decreases with increased student preparation but from my own personal observations, I suspect there's more to it than that. Do you believe that 'performance anxiety' on standardized math tests is real or a fabrication? If real, what are the implications for the classroom teacher? Simply make our classes more rigorous and our tests harder so that students will be accustomed to performing under more pressure? Or is something else needed...
One of the cognitive psychologists quoted in the article, Robert Siegler, is a professor of cognitive psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. Note below his current participation on the National Math Panel. Here is a quote:

Students feel more anxiety in math partly because they are dealing with so many concepts and procedures that are foreign to them, said Robert S. Siegler, a professor of cognitive psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, who has examined children’s thinking abilities in math and science. Once students realize they do not grasp a math concept, the internal pressure grows.

“Math entails certain conceptual barriers that lead people to read the same passage over and over again and not understand it,” Mr. Siegler said. By contrast, in reading a history lesson, students are likely to recognize vocabulary, themes, and ideas, even if they do not understand all the implications of a particular passage.

“You don’t feel like you totally didn’t understand it, and you’re just floundering,” he said.

Mr. Siegler is one of 17 people serving on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group charged with identifying effective strategies for improving instruction in the subject. The panel includes a number of cognitive psychologists, along with education researchers, mathematicians, and others.


Heart_Man said...
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Dave Marain said...

A few reflections here...
There is surely a difference between panicking on a teacher-made test vs a standardized test like SATs. The in-class assessment generally reflects exactly what was taught, often with questions that are worded similarly to homework problems or review sheets. If a student freezes up, then I have to sit with that youngster and get a sense of what is going on. Many students I've met THINK THEY UNDERSTOOD THE MATERIAL AND WERE PREPARED but they were not! When I discuss this with them, I recongnize that they really don't know how to properly study for a math test. These experiences have led me to change my approach before tests. One very useful technique that has helped some students is the 'practice test.' No, not the one I make up! Most students would not want to be this diligent, but the conscientious student who really wants to improve will. Here is what the STUDENT should do:

Two night before the test, take a blank sheet of paper, write CHAPTER TEST and your name at the top. Select 10-15 of the the more difficult problems the teacher has reviewed in class from the text, from examples in class and from review materials (handouts). Write them down neatly and TAKE THE TEST at home in 30-40 minutes. On the day before the test, bring the test in to show the teacher and have her evaluate it. She will know in the first minute or two whether or not you are really ready for this test. She will also know what areas still need reinforcement. Look at it the advantages. The teacher will know that the student really cares about doing well and it's a far sight better than a typical extra help session when the teachers asks, "So what don't you understand?" and the student replies, "EVERYTHING!" Since i've actually used this method and it has helped some of the more text-anxious but diligent students, let me know what you think. Now, standardized tests are another chapter or an entire book!