For all that education has changed in recent times—from the disappearance of cursive lessons to the rise of computer science in classrooms to pandemic-forced remote learning—one thing has remained stubbornly unchanged.
That’s stress and anxiety over math.
EdSurge caught up with cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, author of books “Choke” and “How the Body Knows Its Mind,” to talk about how anxiety can impact students’ math performance—and how adults can help them. Beilock is also the president of Barnard College, and the president-elect of Dartmouth College.
Her most recent study looks at how math anxiety influences how high school students choose to study (or not), resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor performance.
This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
EdSurge: Let’s start with the newsy stuff. In October, a group of medical experts recommended pediatricians screen for anxiety in children 8 and older. Were you surprised by this, given your work?
Sian Beilock: I think the important point is that people at a variety of ages can have and show symptoms of anxiety. So knowing more about what those are, rather than less, is always a good idea.
We’re hearing educators worry about learning loss for children in all subjects, including math, now that they’ve been back to school in person. How are students impacted by the anxiety that we all have been experiencing during this pandemic, once they’re back in the classroom?
Stress doesn’t immediately subside when you go from one environment to another. And certainly being in new environments or environments you’re not used to can create more anxiety—it’s new and a lot to adjust to, just like the adults. But on the learning loss, I would say it’s really important to focus on the lack of input, especially for students who were not as resourced during the pandemic.
Underperformance, as a nation, in math is not new. We’ve performed below many countries for many years, and that’s really something important to address.
I watched one of your talks about your book “Choke” and was really struck by the idea that in the brain, the anxiety of just preparing for something like a math exam triggers pain responses.
Yeah, so the idea is that, oftentimes we have negative reactions even to things before they happen. We’ve all done that as we worry before something happens. And we’ve shown with people who are anxious about math that, even when they just know a math problem is coming, that areas of the brain involved in negative emotional reactions, and even our pain response, are active.
This, I think, tells us something important, because it starts to suggest that being anxious about math is not just about being bad at doing a math problem. There’s something about the anxiety itself that potentially impacts our ability to focus, think in the moment, and actually want to dive in and study.
And so my research team and others really have argued that, in addition to thinking about how we teach students math content, we need to think a lot about how we are preparing students to have a positive math attitude.
I was really fascinated by what you said about students modeling that anxiety from the adults, or the idea that anxiety is contagious.
We know that when teachers, for example, are anxious about math, their students learn less math over the school year and are also more anxious about it. Kids learn from the adults around ’em. And so if all adults are walking around saying, “I’m bad at math” or “Math is scary” or even “It’s OK, you don’t have to be good at this”—that sends a bad signal.
Could that be happening when students hear adults vocalize concerns about learning loss?
It’s a really interesting question. You’re suggesting that teachers and parents and schools talking about the learning loss create almost this pressure situation. Where now kids might even be more anxious about their performance because they know that all eyes are on them. I think it’s totally possible.
I think the question would be: What are teachers and educators doing to help send this signal that you get better through learning and practice? That their goal is to help the students get to where they need to go. It’s not that kids either have math skills or not, or any type of skill or not, it’s that they get it through learning and practice.
Could you tell me more about what you found in your research regarding the physical impacts that anxiety has on students, and how that shows up in their academic performance?
One thing that we’ve shown is that when you have a physiological response that you think is negative, like sweaty palms or racing heart, oftentimes you interpret that as a sign that you’re gonna fail—and you do. But if you can reinterpret those reactions, those physiological responses, as actually something positive, right? It’s the same physiological response when you’re excited versus when you’re nervous.
When we get students to reinterpret those reactions [to mean] that they’re excited, they’re ready to go, they’re focused—rather than they’re anxious, they’re ready to fail—they actually do better. And this is especially true for students who might be worried about their ability to perform because they either come from lower-income backgrounds or [have] other sorts of stereotypes that they carry with them.
In your most recent paper on math anxiety, you looked at how anxiety can keep students from studying. Could you tell me a little bit about what you found? Because you would think that if you’re anxious, preparing will take care of your anxiety.
What we’ve shown is that people who are math anxious tend to prepare by studying in easier ways, or not studying the most demanding problems. You don’t wanna do things that you’re anxious about.
So actually people who are anxious about math read the textbook instead of doing the practice problems, which are hard. And we’ve shown that when you don’t do the more demanding studying, you don’t perform as well. So it’s another example of how anxiety sort of leads you away from the habits that will lead to success. And even just knowing that suggests that we could help people who are anxious about a particular subject study in a more effective way.
Do you have strategies for parents or educators to help their children as they’re dealing with math anxiety in an already stressful environment (schools)?
First, it’s OK to label and call it out that it is a stressful environment and to make it more normal. Oftentimes we tend not to have compassion for ourselves. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable, it’s OK to be a little nervous. That’s part of what it means to come back to a new environment.
And then focusing on what students can control. Maybe you’re packing your lunch or you’re getting ready the night before, or you’ve planned out how you’re gonna do your homework. That can take some of the “not knowing” out of what’s going on, which can be beneficial.
Is there anything else I didn’t touch on that you think is important for folks to know about this issue? About helping children who are experiencing math anxiety, or changing that stereotype that math is not enjoyable or too hard?
One of the biggest issues is being clear as adults that math is not an either-or. It’s not that you either have it or you don’t. It’s something that you learn through practice. And if you are not getting there in one way, there’s probably another way to do it.
We know that when adults model this anxiety themselves, students pick up on it. So the idea is for the adults, and kids as well, to approach this as something that one can tackle and then move on.