It’s interesting just how topical math anxiety is at the moment. While being nervous about math and losing sleep before a test was the assumption in my day, researchers are pointing out that it really should not be the norm. In fact, math anxiety can lead to all kinds of long-term problems in academic and professional success. So banishing these nerves is vital.
A new study has found that tutoring could help diminish math anxiety. US researchers worked with 46 third-grade students. Why third grade? Well because that’s around the age where math anxiety rears its ugly head.
“Math anxiety has been under the radar,” said the study’s lead author. “People think it will just go away, but for many children and adults, it doesn’t.”
The researchers divided the students into two groups: one group with math anxiety, another group without. They then scanned their brains as they were solving math problems. The children who were more anxious had higher levels of activation in the amygdala, this is the region of the brain that processes fearful stimuli and emotions. In fact, activation of this part of the brain takes place among phobic and anxious adults.
The students were then tutored three times a week. Eight weeks later all of the students improved their math. But performance was not the issue at hand. There was little difference among the results between anxious and non-anxious students in the first place. What was fascinating to the researchers was that the brain scan had found that the group who used to have math anxiety had amygdalae with similar levels of activity to those in group that weren’t anxious. Therefore tutoring significantly reduced the children’s anxiety levels.
The researchers are not sure how long this effect will last. Interestingly, they are also not sure what aspect of the tutoring soothed the student. It may have been the content itself, in which case technology or other blended learning models could be used to help the student, or it may have been the one-on-one human interaction.
“It’s reassuring that we could help these children reduce anxiety by mere exposure to problems,” the authors wrote.
Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.