Study of the Day: How to Overcome Math Anxiety Before a Big Test

New research from the University of Chicago shows that fretful math students need to learn how to calm down before dealing with numbers

main olly shutterstock_61787206.jpg

PROBLEM: Math anxiety is tied to low scores in school exams and standardized tests. Is there a way for these fretful students to succeed with numbers?

METHODOLOGY: University of Chicago scientists Ian Lyons and Sian Beilock used a pre-test to recruit college students who were either math-anxious or unperturbed by numbers. They then used fMRI or real-time brain imaging to observe the participants as they watched a screen that indicated when they were about to perform difficult math or spelling tasks and performed the foreshadowed type of problems.

RESULTS: Students who worry about math but scored well nonetheless tended to activate a network of brain areas in the frontal and parietal lobes involved in controlling attention and regulating negative emotional reactions, right when they were signaled of an impending math task. Participants who were not nervous about numbers to begin with did not register significant activation in brain areas linked to attention, emotion, and quantitative performance.

CONCLUSION: Math-anxious students need to focus on controlling their emotions before tests begin.

IMPLICATION: The researchers say in a statement that simply providing additional quantitative instruction may not necessarily lead to math success. Instead, teaching students steps to overcome their fear of number-crunching may need to be added to school curricula.

SOURCE: The full study (PDF), "Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math From the Anxiety," is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Image: olly/Shutterstock.

Presented by

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In