Math and me have had a tumultuous relationship. When I (Zach) was in high school I had a pretty bad math teacher, whose cynicism and poor teaching skills – students were meant to “discover” the solutions to problems before receiving proper instruction – played a role in my decision at the time to never pursue a career that was related to math. During my junior year I studied in France and chose to take the Literature track, which meant less math and more language. The math classes I did take were in French and I ended up just working for a Pass. When I entered university, I realized that I would need to take that one requisite math class to get my bachelor’s degree, so I underwent the excruciating process of taking remedial sub-101 coursework just to get through it all. To my surprise, I was actually quite successful in these courses, and I’m realizing now as I write this that this experience may have played a role in building my philosophy that all students can be successful given the proper guidance from a good teacher.
I finally was able to start taking college-level math coursework at the end of my freshman year. I chose to take the equivalent of Statistics 101, the first in the stats sequence, thinking it would be the most useful for life beyond university. To my dismay, upon arriving in the physical classroom, it was explained to me that the course was an experimental hybrid/blended learning format and that a large part of the learning would be done on a computer program. After the software led us through learning tasks at home we were to bring our questions to the teacher in the physical space for discussion. It sounded a bit dubious to me; Was I meant, again, to “discover” solutions to problems for myself and have strategies withheld from me until I formulated the right questions to ask the teacher so that he might actually teach me how to do the math? Fortunately for me, both the software and the teacher were excellent and rarely did I leave the classroom in a state of anxiety. I even got an A. When I eventually took another statistics class related to educational research during my M.Ed, I felt like I was set up for success compared to teachers who had not taken statistics before.
As an elementary teacher I became an unlikely champion of math for my students. Having some familiarity with the research that showed a negative correlation between adults’ math anxiety and student achievement (Maloney, Ramirez, Gunderson, Levine, & Beilock, 2015), I simply lied to my students about my math past and preached a gospel that I previously had not believed: That of all the great contributions to this earth, math was among the most wonderful that man could inherit. However, to eliminate math anxiety completely, I think, takes more than simply modeling a mindset. The relationship between math anxiety and performance is likely bidirectional (Foley, Herts, Borgonovi, Guerriero, Levine, & Beilock, 2017), meaning that “a poor grasp of basic math concepts may predispose students to develop math anxiety, partly in response to their math struggles” (p. 54). Thus it isn’t enough for us teachers to simply empathize with students about the anxiety that they may have developed before they came into our care, whether by result of normative influence from parents or peers, ineffective teaching, or all of the above. We also cannot expect that stand-alone, generic mindset training will make much of a difference, as anxiety is context dependent (Foley et al., 2017) and the effects of mindset interventions have been surprisingly ineffective (Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara, 2018). No, to defend against math anxiety we must also develop highly effective math instruction that follows research-based principles and is consistent with the basic science of how students learn. Think back to what the instructors of my remedial math classes taught me, just as my math anxiety was perhaps at its worst: Being good at math is highly motivating and all but eliminates the need to feel anxious.
This quarter of my PhD program (See: How Hard is it to Earn a PhD While Teaching?) it seems like MATH IS BACK in the form of a quantitative research statistics course, opening the door once again, potentially, to math anxiety that I thought I had long hidden away and sealed. I’m not alone in feeling a a bit anxious; Apparently between 75-80% of graduate students have some form of statistics anxiety (as cited by Pan & Tang, 2004). Maybe my worries are not unwarranted; It’s been a while since I took any statistics and there is a natural forgetting curve intrinsic to any extended absence of practice. However, we know that “forgotten” items may never truly decay completely from long term memory and that undergoing the process of retrieving them can lead to more durable understandings (Bjork & Bjork, 2003). I am optimistic that fully guided instruction combined with the act of remembering, as well as a fresh outlook on math will lead to me having a successful experience. Whether or not this means I’ll be able to keep math anxiety to a minimum, we shall see!
Hey, follow me on Twitter, @mrzachg, and feel free to leave a comment.
– Zach Groshell
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2003). Intentional Forgetting Can Increase, Not Decrease, Residual Influences of to-Be-Forgotten Information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 29(4), 524–531. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-73126.96.36.1994
Foley, A. E., Herts, J. B., Borgonovi, F., Guerriero, S., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2017). The Math Anxiety-Performance Link: A Global Phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(1), 52–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416672463
Maloney, E. A., Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parents’ math anxiety on children’s math achievement and anxiety. Psychological Science, 26(9), 1480–1488. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615592630
Pan, W., & Tang, M. (2004). Examining the Effectiveness of Innovative Instructional Methods on Reducing Statistics Anxiety for Graduate Students in the Social Sciences, 32(2), 149–159.
Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549–571. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617739704