NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Any fifth-grader already knows what academic researchers are just starting to latch onto: Math is not only hard, it’s also scary.
Studies show that anxiety tops the list of obstacles facing kids who are uncomfortable with square roots and multiplication tables.
A recent University of Chicago study conducted by psychology professor Sian Beilock shows that “stereotype threat” (academic lingo for “choking under pressure”) leads to “suboptimal performance,” or failure.
“I examined how unwanted failure in math occurs and individual differences in those most likely to fail,” says Beilock. “This work suggests that a high-stress environment creates worries about the situation and its consequences that compete for the working memory normally available for performance. Consequently, the performance of individuals who rely most heavily on working memory for successful execution (i.e., higher-working memory individuals) is most likely to decline when the pressure is on.”
Researchers also note that math anxiety rears its ugly head at an early age, thus setting the table for years — even decades — of wrestling with the emotional side of math.
“Math anxiety is a problem that usually starts at an early age, and if it isn’t addressed in grade school, it can hinder students throughout their education and beyond,” says Agnes Rash, professor of mathematics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.