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MSPnet Blog: “Fainting by numbers: the science of math anxiety”

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posted July 24, 2014 – by Brian Drayton

Daniel Willingham, whose long-running column “Ask the cognitive scientist” in the American Educator is always worth a read, writes in his blog (here) about math anxiety, reporting on a survey of the literature by Sian Beilock and himself.  It’s worth reading the blog post, which serves as a sort of executive summary, and then following the link to the full article, which provides all the references.  Math anxiety can impair a student’s math ability, leading to a positive (reinforcing) feedback loop — if you’re not confident of your skill, you are more likely to get anxious, and the worry about whether you can do the math occupies valuable processing space in short-term memory, which interferes with the skill that you do have.  Where does doubt about one’s math ability come from?  Well, if you’re in a society like ours, in which “innate ability” and rapid success are favored seen as key to math success, rather than effort and and learning from one’s mistakes — one can get negative messages from early on in one’s encounter with math.  Some people get negative messages if they are girls, or poor, or members of marginalized groups. The vicious cycle can get have a lot of starting points.  There is some evidence that students with larger working memories, and therefore (as the authors say) more cognitive horsepower, can be inhibited more than one might predict, because they “tend to rely on more advanced problem-solving strategies,” which make more demands on working memory, and are therefore more vulnerable to the demands of worrying,

Beilock and Bellingham suggest: • work to help students gain success with basic skills, • change the way assessments are done, so as to encourage effort and learning from mistakes, and • giving students a little time to write about how they are feeling as they approach an anxiety-provoking task, which seems to help overcome some of the fear.

This leaves me with some  questions:  First, in your work, how do you reckon with math anxiety?  If you are a science educator, how do you encounter and overcome math anxiety?  Finally, do science students experience “science anxiety”? If so, does it have similar roots?    What might be strategies to overcome it?

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One Step Closer to Knowing - Redefining what is means to learn from our mistakes

posted by: Danae Wirth on 7/25/2014 9:32 am

I believe we need to redefine what it means to learn from our mistakes. Anyone who is told and believes they are making mistakes along the way may be more likely to feel the anxiety of possibly failing. Inquiry teaching and learning provides students and teachers the opportunity to discover knowledge. Encouraging the use of the inquiry processes in Math and Science teaching and learning, helps alleviate the anxiety that comes from not knowing and failed attempts. I prefer to define learning from our mistakes as: Gaining new knowledge based on evidence obtained from the results of each attempt to solve the problem. Sometimes the new knowledge is that what you tried didnt work other times the new knowledge gained is that what you tried worked. In each attempt, however, we are one step closer to knowing.

Modeling STEM

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 7/26/2014 9:41 am

I believe we need to redefine what it means to learn from our mistakes. Anyone who is told and believes they are making mistakes along the way may be more likely to feel the anxiety of possibly failing. Inquiry teaching and learning provides students and teachers the opportunity to discover knowledge."

I agree with you that a redefinition and further a sense of restructuring of the goals of practicing learning needs to happen. Ensuring that mistakes change their stripes and become an accepted and acknowledged element of experimentation. Allowing teachers the option to change their own atmosphere as they practice inquiry under the PD banner can serve as a start.
Ive noticed this in action as a benefit of enabling STEM integration which encourages teachers to create projects that are blended domain applications as STEM Literacy projects. Simply stated, the teachers gain an opportunity to experience inquiry in a manageable project with colleagues. Teamwork softens the transition and flow between domainsand has applications in existing programs considered as STEM (LegoLeague, Solar Car Sprint etc). Making the transition can evolve with pleasant results with the right model in mind.

Building up the expectation of faiure

posted by: Virginia Bastable on 7/26/2014 7:09 am

In recent days the educators in our coaches institute have been talking a lot about "learning from mistakes".

One question this has raised for me is how to help students develop a stance of expecting "failure" as a natural part of the process of inquiry. After all, if you already know exactly what to do to make progress on a problem, you wouldn't be engaged in inquiry at all, you'd be engaged in a process of application of knowledge.
How do we help students to see that incorrect first steps, false starts, partial attempts are to be expected?

Virginia Bastable
Mathematics Leadership Programs
Mount Holyoke College

Nature of science

posted by: Diana Cost on 7/26/2014 12:13 pm

I believe that the process of education has actually caused a lot of the anxiety we speak of here. If we look at the infant child for example, we all learned by doing, trial and error, and the feedback that accompanies the growth and learning process from birth to early childhood years. Given support and allowed to "fail" in the home environment these children often become the explorers and chance takers in school. If the institution allows for this (e.g. Project based, problem based, inquiry) the nature of inquiry and fear of failure is low while taking chances and learning from mistakes (I like to call them trials and scientific learning) is high. We often call these children "gifted, leaders) or on the downside " troubled, wise guys, hyperactive) Because these are the ones who ask questions, demand answers or at the very least are seen as not following the old school rules. So, so where they are taught to slow down, fear failure and mistakes and strive for perfection I
am not saying that this is an intentional goal or that schools are the only place it happens, I am just noting that this needs to change and that our society via media, institutions, and such need to be aware that we are all born with instinctual desire to learn from and embrace failure and we as adults need to help drive home the message that this is a good thing. A recent paper from Pamel Lottero-Purdue speaks to the fear of teachers when it comes to allowing for error when teaching young children engineering and science concepts. the research is out there see the link to her paper below.

The art and sport of mathematics

posted by: Talbot Bielefeldt on 7/27/2014 7:35 am

In some other areas of education, learners miss most of their shots and hit lots of wrong notes but that is accepted as part of sports and art. There are differences of course: Athletes and musicians self-select into the activities, and the behaviors include intrinsic reinforcers. But when I think of projects I evaluate in MSP and other initiatives, much effort is devoted to making math and science more "sport-like" or "art-like," with the inclusion of elements such as competition and creative products. A cursory web search turns up lots of hits on to "use" sports or music to teach math, but not much on comparative processes of learning in different areas. I know some of the benefits of these approaches. Has anyone explored their limitations?

Early math norms

posted by: Linda Gojak on 7/27/2014 12:22 pm

I am enjoying the discussion and remember an incident when teaching sixth grade. The class was playing an attribute game called the string game. I happened to say to a student who had placed a piece incorrectly "That was a really good mistake." (His incorrect move gave the others in the class a lot of information!) Every student in the class looked at me like I was crazy.

Students learn early in their lives that the goal of math is to get the right answer, and once they have it no additional sense making, thinking or reasoning is necessary. They are happy. The teacher is happy and their parents are happy. For many students, this notion begins before they even start school...and, unfortunately it is reinforced by too many throughout their formal mathematics learning experience. When they do not get the right answer or they are unsure how to solve problem, the math anxiety sets in. Wouldn't it be wonderful we could help students appreciate their important mistakes!