Good News About Math Anxiety

There have been many studies done about anxiety and mathematics to the extent that it has become a well-known phenomenon. I have personally struggled with math anxiety, and it still comes on at times, which can be a challenge working among very educated math professionals at the AIMS Center. This anxiety can be more than just feelings of nervousness or butterflies in the stomach when doing math tasks. Some people suffer more severe effects such as elevated blood pressure, sweating, reduced ability to think, and even nausea.

For teachers who struggle with math anxiety, there can be an additional level of anxiety. Namely, anxiety about teaching mathematics to students. This type of anxiety can affect teachers of any grade level. The impact of these types of anxieties on students has been unknown. However, a recent study by Kristin Hadley and Jim Dorward has revealed some good news.

The first piece of good news about math anxiety is that it does not affect student performance in math. That is, if a teacher is anxious about their mathematical understanding, this does not usually translate into poor math performance by their students. This realization can be freeing, as it can release a teacher from any associated feelings of guilt that dwell with their math anxiety.

When a teacher with math anxiety first begins their career, it is not surprising that there is a high likelihood that they will also have anxiety about teaching mathematics. The Hadley study shows that this type of anxiety does negatively affect student math performance. To clarify, a teacher’s anxiety about their own math does not lower student math performance, but their anxiety about teaching math does have a negative effect.

However, there is good news here as well. Hadley’s study reveals that there is no permanent or causal relationship between the two types of anxiety. That is, having anxiety about math does not necessitate anxiety about teaching math. Many teachers who are anxious about their teaching practices decide to improve and overcome their anxiety in a variety of ways such as attending workshops, reading educational journals or blogs, or recruiting a coach to improve their math education practices. These measures, in turn, benefit their students and increases their math performance.

As we continue working with math educators, I have the joy of being able to share with them the good news that we are, together, seeking to improve our math education practices and therefore improving the lives of students with which we regularly come in contact. I would love to hear about your experiences with math anxiety and anxiety about teaching math. Please comment or send an email. How has math anxiety affected you or your teaching? What have you done that might be helpful to other teachers?

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