“Andrea Gordon gets help for her math anxiety from mathematician and playwright John Mighton, founder of the Jump math program. He says anyone can discover the joys of math. Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
The waiter is waiting.
You’re at a restaurant with a group of friends and you generously offered to pick up the check. Only you forgot how much you hate calculating the tip! Now the waiter is impatiently peering over your shoulder as you fumble with basic division and addition, hoping your friends don’t notice how red your face is turning, and trying desperately not give the guy a 1.7 percent tip instead of 17 percent.
Math anxiety is a real thing. An estimated 25 percent of American four-year college students and 80 percent of community college students suffer from moderate to high math anxiety, defined as a negative emotional reaction to math. The cruel irony is that having math anxiety makes you even worse at math, which leads some people to avoid math at all costs — not only calculating tips and filing taxes, but dismissing all math-related careers as hopeless.
Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist with the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago where she’s conducted extensive research on math anxiety in children and adults. (She was also recently hired as the president of Barnard College at Columbia University.) When she runs brain scans on people with math anxiety, even the prospect of doing a math problem triggers a response.
"Before people even see the math problem, just knowing that it’s coming, the areas of the brain that are linked to the neural pain matrix are activated," Beilock says.
In other words, math hurts.
Math anxiety starts young and sticks around. In Beilock’s research, 50 percent of first- and second-graders say that math makes them nervous. And because society tells girls that they’re not as good as the boys at math, that makes girls even more anxious on average. And when high anxiety leads to bad performance on math tests (which it does), people jump to the conclusion that they were born to be bad at math. Some even wear it as a badge of pride.
Beilock gets frustrated when she meets a highly intelligent colleague who brags about not being a "math person."
"You don’t hear anyone bragging about not being a ‘reading person,’" she says. "Unfortunately, it’s socially acceptable to talk about math this way, and it perpetuates this notion that you either have it or you don’t. But we know that you can get better at math by practicing and learning."
Solutions for Math Anxiety
Bon Crowder is a veteran math educator and blogger at mathfour.com (motto: "Math is not a four-letter word"). During her 25 years of teaching math to students of all ages, she’s developed some tricks for helping people get over their math anxiety. It starts with dumping the negativity.
"Whoever it is that has you convinced that you’re bad at math, get rid of them," says Crowder. "And that person may be you."
Beilock actually conducted some interesting experiments along those very lines. In her book, "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To", she describes a writing exercise where college kids with math anxiety were instructed to "free write" about their worries and negative thoughts before taking a math test.
The reason anxiety impacts performance on things like timed tests, Beilock explains, is that the negative emotional reaction robs resources from working memory. When students were able to "offload their worries" on paper, it freed up those cognitive resources and they did better on the tests.
Another of math educator Crowder’s tips for overcoming math anxiety is to reimagine the entire way you think about math.
"Completely get rid of this notion of textbook, schoolwork, sit-down-at-the-desk math, because that’s garbage," says Crowder. "Math is not the stuff we cram down your throat."
Crowder recommends reading an eye-opening essay by math teacher and author Paul Lockhart called "A Mathematician’s Lament" in which he argues that math is a creative and imaginative artform on par with music or painting, not a rote-memorized system all about following directions and getting the "right" answer. The way we teach math in schools, Lockhart says, is the equivalent of teaching someone how to play the violin by making them master musical theory and notation before ever touching the instrument. What’s the fun in that?
It’s hard, though, for adults with math anxiety to change their entire perspective about something that’s been negatively reinforced for so long. If only they could go back to the beginning and relearn math in a more interesting and playful way.
For math-anxious parents, that’s actually an option.
There’s a whole movement out there to help families with young kids build healthy math habits and make the next generation immune to math anxiety. Bedtime Math is an incredible resource for incorporating fun math-related activities into daily family life. Another is Table Talk Math.
Beilock recently did a study where parents and kids engaged in Bedtime Math-style activities in addition to the normal bedtime stories routine, and the kids’ math performance improved. Because data from the study is still under review, Beilock can’t tell us much more, but teased, "You can imagine that there are benefits for the parents, too."
Oh, and here’s an easy way to calculate that restaurant tip: Most states have sales tax amounts between 7 and 9 percent. Simply double the amount of the sales tax on the receipt and you’ll have a decent tip.
Now That’s Cool
In 2017, Beilock coauthored a study that found a strong link between math success for the math-anxious and activity in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (areas that control attention and regulate negative emotions). In other words, students with math anxiety who could control their emotions — for instance, by taking a few deep breaths before starting an exam — did almost as well on math tests as students with no math anxiety.