Coping with math anxiety key to learning, says Western Education expert

April 15, 2020

Shallow breathing. Sweaty palms. These are some of the symptoms of mathematics anxiety.

These feelings are not part of a student’s imagination. They’re real and they can negatively affect a student’s ability to learn math.

Professor Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Director of the Centre for the Science of Learning and head of the Numerical Cognition Laboratory, spoke to alumni and the general public during a virtual presentation about mathematics.

Math anxiety is a common fear among students. Ansari cited one study that showed 60 per cent of Grade 8 students worry about having difficulty in math while 30 per cent of students feel tense when completing math homework.

It’s important to take students’ attitudes and emotions into account when dealing with math anxiety because there’s a relationship between anxiety and math performance, said Ansari. When students experience anxiety, it occupies the working memory, which means more of the brain is dealing with the anxiety and less of it is trying to solve the math problem.

“Math anxiety is not just an emotional problem. It also has cognitive consequences,” he said.

Adults are also influencers when it comes to math anxiety. Teachers and parents who have math anxiety can influence students math anxiety, which can lead to poor math performance.

However, there’s good news about math anxiety, said Ansari. First, children with low math anxiety do well in math. Second, students who have math anxiety doesn’t mean they won’t learn math. Rather, it’s how a student deals with their anxiety that determines a student’s academic success.

“It’s really important for us to not take mathematics anxiety as a sign that a student won’t be able to learn math,” said Ansari. “We can deal with mathematics anxiety and free up a student’s mind to engage in math and to find that they’re enjoying and deriving satisfaction from the subject.”

Western Alumni offers these webinars as part of the university’s commitment to lifelong learning. It’s also meant to keep alumni and the public’s intellectual curiosity thriving with free online learning opportunities.

Read more about Professor Daniel Ansari.

Watch Professor Daniel Ansari’s presentation.

Read a paper by Professor Daniel Ansari and his former graduate student Moriah Sokolowski on math anxiety.

Read a blog post by Professors Daniel Ansari, Erin Maloney and Jonathan Fugelsang on math anxiety.