Friday, 11 November 2016

Solving for Why: Some Children Are More Likely to be Vulnerable to Math Anxiety

A high school math class experience is likely one of the more polarizing topics of conversation. You can mention your experiences in a math class and be guaranteed that someone will explain how they hated math in school and now avoid it at all costs. However, research is shedding some light on just how important math is to our daily lives. Low math achievement has a profoundly negative association in an individual’s life outcomes. Individuals are more likely locked-out of advanced math courses if they were unsuccessful in earlier classes. Job opportunities are less likely to go to those without proper math credentials. On top of that, poor math skills are tied to poor financial planning (Bynner and Parsons, 2006). 

Unfortunately, math anxiety is associated with low achievement in math classes. Not only is math anxiety associated with avoidance, but it is also linked to impairment in a child’s ability to think about math in a way that would help them solve complex problems (Ramirez et al. 2016). It is important to understand why some kids struggle with math because of the foundational nature of skills learned early on.  

Present study:
Working memory is an important ability to store and manipulate pertinent information while ignoring confusing or extraneous information. Math Anxiety introduces negative thoughts that make it difficult to access working memory while solving math problems. Children initially use simple problem solving strategies, like finger counting, when they start learning math, but usually move on to more memory-based advanced strategies as they develop. Examples of these memory-based strategies include decomposition and retrieval. Decomposition is breaking a problem down into manageable steps, and retrieval is remembering a particular fact needed for the answer. These strategies seem easy to adults who’ve had a lot of practice, but for kids these strategies place a lot of demand on working memory. Decomposition and retrieval, require long term memory recall and keeping tracking a series of different steps while ignoring inapplicable answers that are competing for their attention.
Ramirez et al. looked at the levels of math anxiety, the use of problem solving strategies, and working memory capacity in 564 first and second grade children. The researchers wanted to understand more about how math anxiety effects a child’s problem solving strategies when working on math problems.  Ramirez et al. hypothesized that children with math anxiety are less likely to use memory-based strategies. To test this theory, children were given a math anxiety questionnaire, a working memory task, a math assessment, and a task that assessed what type of strategy they used to solve a word problem without pencil or paper.     
In theory, higher working memory capacity in children is associated with more advanced memory-based strategy use, like those listed above, because they have a larger pool of memory resources to use. However, Ramirez et al. found that children who reported high math anxiety and scored high on working memory were less likely to use advanced memory-based strategies. The assumption was that math anxious children with high working memory try to use the memory-based strategies at first, but their math anxiety interrupts that process. As a result, high math anxious children are less likely to develop math skills because they remain reliant on simpler problem solving strategies. Ramirez et al. expressed concern that children that who scored high on working memory are more likely to be disproportionately impaired by the effects of math anxiety, since they might otherwise be capable to solve more difficult problems.

Going Forward

What can we take from this? Having a better understanding of how math anxiety is correlated to working memory and how it influences math achievement is critical in the development of appropriate interventions. We want the best programs to help our kids who struggle in school. Ramirez et al. suggest that once math anxiety is appropriately dealt with, math anxious kids with high working memory are more likely to use advanced memory-based strategies in the classroom. Being able to use those advanced strategies goes with higher math achievement in the classroom.  As I mentioned above, there are negative effects of having poor math skills. The bright side of that relationship is that gaining more math skills early on is linked to more positive outcomes in employment, school, and financial stability later on in life.
Ramirez et al. were also hopeful about anxiety interventions like cognitive reappraisal that could be modified for children’s math anxiety. Originally for adults, cognitive reappraisal challenges people to think about negative stimulus in a way that is less threatening. Ramirez et al. viewed this as a promising intervention in math anxiety.  Whether through this or other strategies, a strong argument can be made that early intervention in a math anxious child’s life has the potential to lay a solid foundation for future achievement.

Bynner,J.,andParsons,S.(2006). Does numeracy matter more? London: National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy
Ramirez, G., Chang, H., Maloney, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2016). On the relationship between math anxiety and math achievement in early elementary school: The role of problem solving strategies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology141, 83–100.

Author: Melissa Elfers

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