Stanford Study Looks at the Early Development of Math Anxiety

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As an English teacher and a self-proclaimed Wordsmith, math classes were never really a favorite of mine growing up. However, luckily for me, I was also blessed with a natural ability when it came to math and found that, as I progressed in my education statistics (you know, the words based math) was a secret pleasure. Many students, both young and old, are not as fortunate as I am, however and are instead plagued by what experts term Math Anxiety. Loosely defined as an emotional problem characterized by intense nervousness when it comes to math tests, math anxiety is just like any other form of anxiety in that it cannot merely “go away” without specific, targeted treatment. However, since this is an emotional problem limited to one academic field, many students with math anxiety go untreated for years, perhaps forever, and end up deficient math skills once they complete their education, limiting their job and higher education prospects.

As President Obama tries once again to refocus our nation’s educational goals onto the STEM Curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) it seems especially relevant that we evaluate the performance of our nation’s students when it comes to these disciplines and try to get to the root of previous failures. To accomplish this goal, the issue of math anxiety has recently been undertaken by a team of researchers at Stanford University. Their results, which lift the veil for the first time in regards to the onset of math anxiety in young students (aged seven to nine), may hold the key to helping our nation’s students succeed in the STEM curriculum of the 21st century.

Math and Brain Functioning: How Anxiety Cripples Learning

One of the methods used by these Stanford researchers was to look at the brain function of 46 second and third-grade students as they attempted to complete mathematical problems through functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI). Each child was also independently evaluated outside of the fMRI for generalized anxiety as well as overall intelligence. The 46 students tested all scored similarly on the general anxiety and intelligence scales, yet were split between high and low-performing math students.

What the researchers discovered through the fMRI images was that the regions in the brain that remained active in students with math anxiety were in direct contrast with the regions needed to perform highly on mathematical tests. Namely, the amygdala, or fear center, was highly agitated in students with math anxiety along with a region of the hippocampus tasked with creating new memories. In contrast, regions of the brain typically associated with numerical reasoning and working memory showed reduced activity in these students. Not surprisingly, the increased activity in the fear center seemed to contribute to that decreased function in the numerical information-processing region of the brain so necessary for high math performance.

In more practical terms, the students who were revealed to have a higher degree of math anxiety were also judged to be less accurate in their calculations and moved significantly slower than their peers with low math anxiety. Also of significance, however, were the conclusions of the researchers that the anxiety associated with math problems did not equate to ability. Generally, the children with high degrees of math anxiety were capable of achieving high scores in math, but crippled by the own fear.

Classroom Application

As teachers and counselors, a general recognition of the existence of math anxiety is the first step towards helping our students overcome it in the classroom and, ultimately, in life. The fact that a higher degree of math anxiety directly correlates with a lower degree of proficiency in mathematics over the course of one’s life means that one of the primary goals of an increased emphasis on STEM curriculum needs to highlight students with this anxiety and directly reach out to them.

As we prepare for the demands of the 21st century in terms of technology and new educational goals, looking at factors beyond the obvious – race, socioeconomic background, even learning disability – and reaching out to children who struggle with isolated issues such as math anxiety will be a key to reaching the lofty goals set by the nation and ourselves as educators. Math anxiety, like any other emotional disorder, is real and needs to be recognized as such.

AD Midd

About AD Midd

AD is a college writing teacher whose work experience includes everything from coordinating YMCA after-school programs for at-risk youth to tutoring developmental writing students to general classroom instruction. In addition to writing professionally, AD currently teaches a range of adult community college students in both online and physical classroom settings. At home, she keeps in shape by running after her two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @ADMidd and on Facebook (

4 thoughts on “Stanford Study Looks at the Early Development of Math Anxiety

  1. This is an interesting article and it would be great to include a link to the study (I may have missed it). A question it raises is whether the anxiety is a result of a disconnect the way children learn and the way they are taught. Have we historically and do we currently provide enough opportunities for children to master the concepts through the use of appropriate materials,such as manipulatives, combined with Developmentally Appropriate (teaching) Practices? If we think of a strengths-based approach to teaching children, they must first develop the skills (strengths) in ways that are suited to a young child’s approach to learning through exploration before we can expect them to do well on exams.

  2. Pingback: Secrets of Mental Math | Learning Jigsaw

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