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Math Anxiety Affects Skills As Basic As Counting 210

Posted by timothy
from the resemble-that-remark dept.
thirty-seven writes "According to four Canadian psychologists, a study they have conducted shows that math anxiety, 'the feeling of fear and dread of performing mathematical calculations,' can negatively affect mathematical tasks much simpler and more basic than previously thought. In the study, participants were asked to count black squares on a white screen. The number of squares shown ranged from one to nine and participants were given as much time as they wanted before answering. When the number of squares was in the subitizing range (one to four), both math-anxious and non-math-anxious participants performed equally well, but when the number of squares was in the counting range (five to nine), the math-anxious group took longer and were less accurate. The University of Waterloo's news release about the study includes this interesting note: 'Previous studies have shown that a weakness in basic math abilities has a greater negative effect on employment opportunities than reading difficulties [do].'"
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Math Anxiety Affects Skills As Basic As Counting

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  • Isn't it obvious ? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ls671 (1122017) * on Saturday February 20, 2010 @06:29PM (#31213730) Homepage

    Isn't it obvious that the fear of something will have an impact even on the simplest things where something relative to that fear is involved ?

  • Re:Oh God.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by AuMatar (183847) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @06:58PM (#31213912)

    I think it has a lot to do with the frequency of calculations. Most high order math doesn't require dealing with large numbers, but variables. So you don't get a lot of fiddling with actual calculations in your day to day life, other than maybe adding up bills (which you tend to estimate on anyway- you round things up or down for easy adding). I used to be able to take a square root to 4 significant figures in my head in just a few seconds. I still remember how, but trying to do so would take me a minute or so- I just don't practice multiplication and division of large numbers every day anymore. No real need to. But if I practiced again I'd get my speed back. I think the same goes for most people who learn and study higher mathematics- any loss in calculation speed is due to not needing to use it often.

  • by y4ku (1681156) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @06:59PM (#31213922)
    I think the issue is one of confidence. If you do math on a daily basis, or even have to count things as in this study on a daily basis with the knowledge that you must be right, you'll be more confident in your final answer because you're used to it. Put a guy from a machine shop that has to count 1000 drill bits before he ships them to make sure the shipping order is precise, and he'll top that study.
  • Causation (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dcollins (135727) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @07:31PM (#31214106) Homepage

    This is the first time on Slashdot that I'll that say there's a legitimate call for "correlation is not causation". The claim in the article is that "anxiety about mathematics can adversely affect tasks as simple as basic counting". But the reported data is simply that "math anxious individuals, relative to their non-math anxious peers, demonstrated a deficit in the counting range (five to nine)..."

    I don't see any support for the hypothesis that math anxiety "affects" or "impacts" (per the article) basic math tasks. I think an equally-well supported hypothesis is that people who suck at counting to 5 wind up developing math anxiety.

    To test their hypothesis, they need to take equally-skilled people and somehow make an experimental group anxious about the upcoming task (or something). I don't see that happening here. Frankly, I'm highly skeptical of this whole "math anxiety" postulate. I think we've got to accept the fact that for some people, even basic arithmetic is monumentally difficult, and not blame it on their "feelings" towards the task.

  • by D J Horn (1561451) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @07:39PM (#31214176)

    I've always had trouble with math, not so much understanding it but actually doing it. It got worse over the years, not just with harder math, but any math. Eventually I could tell I was actually having anxiety attacks when asked simple math questions. Now days these anxiety attacks are actually bad enough to trigger my flight-or-fight response. It's overwhelming and hard to describe, but if I don't focus entirely on calming down, it feels like I will 'lose control'. At this point the problem makes itself worse - I can be asked something I KNOW how to solve but I end up having to concentrate so hard on self control that I can't even take time to think about the problem I was asked. Not being able to think about the problem means I can't answer it, which makes the anxiety worse, which makes it even more impossible to stop and think about the math itself.

    It's been pretty crippling, both socially and in work. I do everything I can to avoid situations that will be problematic. I simply stone wall anyone who tosses math at me, shutting down with simple 'no's and 'I can't's, leading them to assume I'm unintelligent and/or uneducated - an assumption I let them have because it's easier than trying to explain what's really going on.

    I've never encountered anyone who even remotely understood, so I thought it was just me having an odd, unfortunate personality quirk. I mean nerds and anxiety go hand in hand right?

    Maybe I'm not alone...

  • by UncleMidriff (935137) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @08:07PM (#31214414)
    I have a bachelor's degree in math, and I graduated with a 4.0 GPA. Though I realize that's not all that impressive among the Slashdot crowd, I have done math that would make most normal men weep, and I excelled at it. However, if you were to come up to me and ask me what 7*13 is, I would turn white as a sheet, stammer a bit, and, after several minutes, give you an answer that is likely incorrect. There's just something about being put on the spot like that that shifts my brain into panic mode.
  • My Story (Score:5, Interesting)

    by carp3_noct3m (1185697) <> on Saturday February 20, 2010 @11:03PM (#31215548)
    I happen to be one of these people, so I have some knowledge about the subject. Although I cannot speak for everyone, in my cause there was a very strong correlation between my fear of math (or my lack of math ability) and my performance. At a younger age (elementary school) I simply found math to be non-practical, and therefore ignored it(which is to say I did the bare minimum to get by in class). Once I did this however, by the time I got to highschool, I had severely fallen behind in math all around. My first and only class I failed was algebra, which I retook and finally passed with a C. To me, it was such an abstract thing that it seemed pointless in its difficulty. I should qualify that in all other subjects I excelled, including things like networking (boolean functions and binary, that I saw had practical benifit, I could do in my head no problem) Now, after serving in the military, and going back to college, it has been over 7 years since I had a college level math course, and still struggle, but I have found something that helps me tremendously. Finding practical applications that require whatever level of math I'm studying. My main tool for this at the moment, however bizarre this may sound, is building things in Garry's Mod, via the Wire Mod tool. It requires some very complicated mathmatical procedures to do something such as build a 10 cyclinder engine wiring to fire off in the correct sequence at high speed. In short, I believe it is a matter of learning types, I am a visual/kinetic learner, and need some substantial problem to wrap my head around and things have slowly (not without hard work) falling into place for me, and I'm sure I'm not the only one in a similar situation.
  • by kklein (900361) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @12:10AM (#31215920)

    I use and even sometimes teach factor analysis, item response theory (Rasch and multiparameter), structural equation modeling (okay, so most of those are flavors of the same thing), as well as a whole host of other statistical analyses. But as I prepare to go back to grad school for a PhD, and therefore need the GRE again, I'm struck--yet again--how absolute shit I am at arithmetic. Questions that require me to just manipulate variables around are no problem, but if they throw an actual value in there, and I have to work on that with scratch paper, I have to be REEEEALLY slow and careful, because I make more stupid arithmetic errors than anyone I know.

    I also joke (but not joking, really) that I can't count. I'll count something 3 times and come up with a different number. I'm terrible. Terrible.

    Writing code in R is easier for me than the multiplication table.

    However, as an applied linguist, I also know quite a bit about another cognitive activity, and I think I've noticed a pattern. When I'm learning a new language, I tear through the grammar and make very few mistakes. But vocabulary? It's here and then it's gone. I study the same words over and over and over again, and they just don't stick. It's embarrassing.

    So what do these two things have in common? Working in code, moving variables around, and human language grammar are all procedural knowledge. They are "processing"-intensive. Numbers, the multiplication table, and vocabulary are all stored, static knowledge. They are memory-intensive. So if I'm bad at those things, perhaps we would expect that I would also have a terrible memory, right.

    Guess what? I live by lists and notes to myself. I have a memory like a sieve. I first started doing this with my research--taking detailed notes on everything I did--because I once realized when I was done prepping, carrying out, and interpreting a particularly labor-intensive analysis of some of my data, that I had just done it the previous weekend, and just... forgot. Luckily, my findings were the same both times. Sometimes I find things that I've written to myself and I have no recollection of writing them, but I know my handwriting, so I just do what they say. Seriously. I'm like the guy from Memento.

    So at the heart of this whole "math anxiety" thing, I think, we might just have different cognitive styles at work here. I'm a university researcher. I'm not dumb. I've turned out fine, by doing the things I'm bad at in a way that takes advantage of things I'm good at. You know, like everyone does all the time. What might make people anxious about math is that--and this is coming from a professional tester (what do you think "item response theory" is for?)--we assess it in a very one-dimensional way that does not "bias for best" (a saying in the testing community--design tests that allow the examinee to show off their best, because that's what we're really interested in).

    In the US, at least, we have a really flawed way of teaching and assessing math skills--one which, I think, leads a lot of people to quit because they think they can't do it, or that it's boring. Math is no more boring than stirring a bowl, and everyone loves cake. It's just a means to an end, but we never get the actual cake in the school system, so people get all worried about stirring and finally just end up buying cake from the store and saying "wow, you must be really good at stirring"--when the pros use machines for that crap.

    So, to sum up, I don't actually think we have an "anxiety" problem. People are anxious because they think they suck at math. They think they suck at math because they suck at math. But sucking at math might be due to totally benign cognitive style differences that are easily routed around. --If we can fix our pedagogical and assessment approaches to math education, I think you'll see this "anxiety" disappear, and find that most people can handle math-intensive tasks if they are presented them in a better, and more realistic, way.

  • by orcwog (526336) * on Sunday February 21, 2010 @12:27AM (#31216002)

    Isn't it obvious that the fear of something will have an impact even on the simplest things where something relative to that fear is involved ?

    I don't think it's math anxiety that caused these results. I think it's anxiety in general.

    I took part in a psych study about a decade ago (conveniently at the U of Waterloo) for a similar thing. I was asked to count arcs -- line-drawn half-circles, pointed in an upwards or downwards direction placed randomly on a screen. There would be somewhere between 5 to 15 of these on the screen, and instructions were to count all the "upward arcs" or "downward arcs" as fast as possible. After a few trials, I thought myself so good at this counting that after just a flash of the screen I would hit spacebar indicating I had counted them, then count them in my head and answer. I'm pretty sure I got almost all of them right. Half way through the experiment, I got really bad at this for some reason and even had to count one arc at a time or take a wild guess if I had hit spacebar too early.

    After the experiment I was told that many of the arcs were positioned to make faces. The first half of the experiment had smiling faces -- 2 arcs down for happy eyebrows and an upward arc for a smiling mouth. The second half had angry/sad faces, 2 ups for eyebrows and a down for the mouth.

    Turns out, the angry faces significantly affected my ability to count.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @12:33AM (#31216044) Journal
    Luckily there is a fairly easy way to test that...

    With chemical anxiolytics, you can substantially damp somebody's anxiety responses to things that usually scare them. With the right chemical anxiolytics, you can even do so without rendering them useless for other things.

    Repeat the experiment; but have all participants(normal and anxiety groups) take a pill ~30 minutes before the questioning. Half of each group will get a placebo, half will get a milligram or two of Lorazepam. The effect of Lorazepam on the normal group will let us know if its effect on general mental acuticity at that dose is an issue. The effect on the anxiety group will tell us what we want to know. If being stupid makes you anxious, the drugged half of the anxiety group will be just as stupid (and a little happier) than the undrugged half. If anxiety makes you stupid, the drugged half of the anxiety group should perform substantially better than the undrugged half(though, if the anxiety is relatively minor, the placebo effect might also be quite helpful, so you might actually have to have three groups: nothing, placebo, Lorazepam for each of the test populations).
  • Re:Well... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thirty-seven (568076) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @12:37AM (#31216072)

    Certainly. If you actually have a phobia of something, the smallest notion can affect you.

    I don't think that math anxiety is a "phobia" for most people; it is milder and much more widespread among the general population, I think. Wikipedia (not an authoritative source for definitions of psychology terms, I know) says a phobia is "an intense and persistent fear" and that mathematical anxiety is "anxiety about one's ability to do mathematics" and anxiety is an "unpleasant feeling that is typically associated with uneasiness, fear, or worry."

    So it does surprise me that the kind of self-defeating attitude that leads people to decide that they can't learn trig or shouldn't bother learning how to divide fractions also affects something as basic as counting to nine. It also surprises me that it seems that people, on some level, think of such basic counting as "math". I know, of course, that counting is math, but it surprises me that people would lump such basic counting in with the type of math that they should dread doing.

  • Re:Causation (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21, 2010 @03:41AM (#31216878)

    I think the idea behind the study is that act of counting to 9 is so simple that the hypothesis that the math-anxious group simply sucks at counting is unlikely enough to be reasonably dismissed. You can probably easily show in a more casual setting that the math-anxious people are highly able to count within single digits.

  • Re:stereotypes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by u38cg (607297) <> on Sunday February 21, 2010 @05:45AM (#31217234) Homepage
    I've often wondered what would happen if you took a standard school intake class, gave them a short all-purpose test, told them they'd all passed with 95%+, and spent the rest of the year treating them like geniuses. To this day, I'm convinced that I am no smarter than my classmates were, but because I read books I was "the smart one" and hence I did end up doing better.

I'd rather just believe that it's done by little elves running around.