How anxiety around math hurts student performance

As educators across the country try to recalculate teaching of math, The Current asks if the problem is calculation or communication.
Ontario is the latest province to announce it will rethink the way math is taught in the classroom, after some disappointing test results. (Shuttershock)

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To self-described math geek Adam Spencer, "math is beautiful."

"It's natural. It's everywhere. Numbers are the musical notes with which symphony of the universe is written," he says in celebration.

But for the less-enamoured, math can be a constant source of anxiety — for parents, for students, and sometimes for teachers.

RelatedMath Anxiety: An Important Component of Mathematical Success

"Math anxiety is widespread among students worldwide," says Daniel Ansari who has worked in developmental cognitive neuroscience using brain imaging to look at how children process numbers.

We need to help shift the conversation more towards nudging teachers along a little bit in their math abilities.- Ian VanderBurgh 

Ansari adds research shows high levels of math anxiety is also widespread amongst elementary educators that "can rub off on their students," and cites parental math anxiety as a third relationship to how anxiety in students is created.

"So we need to be very aware of the potential adverse effects of math anxiety and the relationship between student math anxiety, teacher math anxiety and parental math anxiety." 
Helping teachers improve their own mathematics will create confidence, an important part to teaching the subject, says University of Waterloo's Ian VanderBurgh. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Ontario is the latest province to announce it will rethink the way math is taught in the classroom, launching a $60-million program.

It's an investment that the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing's Ian VanderBurgh supports.

"Helping teachers improve their own mathematics abilities … will lead to confidence," he tells Tremonti.

"It's great to help teachers improve their pedagogical abilities, and that is of course important, but I think particularly at elementary school, I think we need to help shift the conversation more towards nudging teachers along a little bit in their math abilities."

VanderBurgh suggests students will benefit if those teachers who show more confidence in math should be the one to teach the subject.

Related: NYT Quiz: Do You Have Math Anxiety?

To alleviate math anxiety, Ansari suggests a so-called expressive writing exercise that has positive results.

He explains before taking a math test, students were asked to sit down and write about their anxiety — to put on paper how they feel about the upcoming exam, how they feel about math.

"By having done that, anxiety is less likely to interfere with solving the problems that are on the exam. You've almost dealt with the anxiety so now you freed up your cognitive resources, and you can fully concentrate on doing the math."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Manusha Janakiram. Ramraajh Sharvendiran and Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.