My mother was what we would now call maths anxious, if not phobic. My daughter, on the other hand, was a maths major, which always left me feeling like the transitional generation, capable of surviving college calculus (it's one of the pre-med requirements) but never really connecting to the subject's beauty or power.
So when I hear people talk about lack of self-confidence when it comes to numbers or intense maths anxiety, I always think first of my mother, a college English professor who was terrified by the idea of calculating a 10 per cent tip, and desperately grateful to leave it to any grandchild at the fourth-grade level or beyond.
New research shows that maths anxiety is by no means unique to the United States, and is found in countries where students regularly outperform the US in maths skills. In a study published in February, researchers from the University of Chicago looked at data from 64 countries participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading skills.
"Maths anxiety is prevalent all around the world," said Ms Julianne Herts, a study author and doctoral student at the University of Chicago who works in cognitive psychology. "If you look within Japan, students in Japan who are maths anxious aren't scoring as well at maths," she said. "If you look between countries, countries where more students experience maths anxiety tend to underperform." So does being "bad at maths", whatever that is, make you anxious, or does being anxious make you bad at maths?
"There's increasing reason to believe it's a bi-directional relation," said Dr Alana Foley, a postdoctoral fellow in developmental psychology at the University of Chicago, who was the first author of the study. "Poor performance in maths can lead to maths anxiety, but there are also studies that point in the other direction. If you have maths anxiety, it disrupts your concentration."
Even students who score high on maths tests can feel a special worry around this subject, Dr Foley said. Among high-performing students, "maths anxiety takes a bigger bite out of their performance".
Other researchers involved in the study traced maths anxiety into early childhood. Dr Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and author of the book Choke, about performance and pressure, said maths anxiety "oftentimes relates most strongly to the performance of those kids who want to do well, who tend to be high achieving in school". A couple of years ago, Dr Beilock and her colleagues published an article showing that parental maths anxiety could be transmitted to children.
There has been some overlap demonstrated between maths anxiety and other general types of anxiety, especially related to test-taking, but maths anxiety seems to exist as a separate phenomenon; studies have shown increased heart rates when people were tested on maths, but not on other subjects. One problem is that we tend to believe with maths that you either have the ability or you don't, rather than assuming that your skills and abilities are the result of study and practice.
There has been some overlap demonstrated between maths anxiety and other general types of anxiety, especially related to test-taking, but maths anxiety seems to exist as a separate phenomenon. Studies have shown increased heart rates when people were tested on maths, but not on other subjects.
One problem is that we tend to believe with maths that you either have the ability or you don't, rather than assuming that your skills and abilities are the result of study and practice. "It's an interesting phenomenon in our culture to hear highly intelligent people bragging about not being good at maths, not being numbers people," said Dr Beilock.
Dr Susan Levine, chairman of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, agreed: "An educated person doesn't go around saying, I'm not a reading person." Researchers believe that the skills - and the anxiety - are actually shaped even before children start formally learning maths.
Maths skills at kindergarten entry, Dr Levine said, predict not only later maths achievement but also other important skills, including reading.
So what are those crucial maths skills in early childhood? Dr Levine said that although many pre-school children know how to count, they don't necessarily understand the meaning of the number words. With children from 21/2 to four years old, "parents are often shocked when we bring kids into the lab", she said. "They know the kids can count, but when we ask them to give me two of something, they just grab a bunch of things."
By kindergarten, children have additional skills; for example, they can understand that you can make five by holding up three fingers on one hand and two on the other, or four and one. Dr Levine said they also can demonstrate what is known as flexible counting - that is, they can start from four or five, without going all the way back to one, or count backwards.
"Parents embrace as part of their responsibility to get kids ready to read in school, to introduce them to the alphabet and letter sounds," Dr Levine said. "They're much more likely to think it's the school's job to teach maths."
In a 2015 study, parents used a program called Bedtime Math, a mobile app that presented short numerical story problems to their children. The children's maths skills improved relative to children in a control group, Dr Beilock said, but the improvement was strongest in children whose parents had maths anxiety.
Working with the app might help dispel the myth that there are maths people and non-maths people, said Dr Levine, and make parents less anxious and more willing to introduce maths talk into their daily lives (let's put five raisins in each cookie; let's set the table, how many forks do we need?).
"Think of maths as something that's the purview of the home, not just the school," Dr Beilock said.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'These maths worries just keep adding up'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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