Girls who perform poorly in math may have picked up cues from teachers in primary school years, a study shows.

And, when students develop math anxiety, it may hamper their learning and their performance.

“We’ve done a lot of work on how math anxiety relates to math performance,” said Sian L. Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.

The researchers have measured levels of cortisol in saliva, a stress hormone, and also used neuroimaging of brains with a functional magnetic scanner in their math anxiety studies, she said.

“Math anxiety is not just a symptom of being bad at math. It can impact a student’s ability to show what they know. It compromises students’ ability to attend to problems they’re reading or pull out what they know from their working memory,” said Beilock.

People have only so much “cognitive horsepower” so when they are “math anxious,” it eats up some of that “horsepower they could otherwise devote to the task,” said Beilock, the author of “Choke,” a 2010 book about how the brain responds to performance under pressure.

Another finding, Beilock said, is that girls in first or second grade who have women teachers with acute anxiety about math tend to pick that up and it affects their own performance and their beliefs about what girls and boys are good at. Boys, on the other hand, do not internalize their female teachers’ attitudes.

Andrew Johnson, who teaches math at Indian Valley Middle School in Lower Salford, said he’s seen math anxiety start in fifth and sixth grades, when problems get more difficult.

“One important thing that we do in our middle school is group the kids heterogeneously,” he said, so both high performers and low performers are in the same class.

Johnson has them work together in small groups to solve problems so that they can “talk it out and share results.”

“If you put them in groups to work on it, they work together to use their math skills to solve the problems. Some kids might not be good at certain parts. Some are good at computation skills. Others use common sense to figure it out. What’s our goal? What to do first, second and third.”

Johnson likes to have groups with both boys and girls. The girls tend to be better at communicating the problem and “lead the group,” while the boys “sometimes tend to keep their ideas to themselves.”

And if girls are anxious, he said, he tries to work with them one-on-one to encourage them.

Mike Dinneen — who teaches algebra 2, geometry and statistics at Lansdale Catholic High School — also allows students to work in groups to ease their math anxiety. He also give practice tests before tests so students know what to study and finds “that helps their anxiety.”

“Eighty percent of kids are afraid of math,” Dinneen said. “Twenty percent love math and can do it all day.”

As for those who have problems with math, “Probably somebody in their life told them they couldn’t do math. I try to put them in groups. I never bring a kid up to the front and make them do a problem. I wouldn’t put them on the spot like some people do.”

Vince O’Neill, a former North Penn High School math teachers and doctoral candidate at George Washington University, said these days there is so much emphasis on testing that teachers forget to build relationships with students.

His doctoral work centers on the importance of teacher-student relationships.

“Teachers can help students overcome math anxiety by building strong relationships with them,” O’Neill said. “The most important thing (for teachers) is to listen to their students, to pay attention to how they react to math class and the pressures of math.

The key is taking some time to make sure you create a positive learning environment to help dispel the cultural norm that it’s OK to be afraid of math,” he said. “It’s a mantra that math teachers hear all the time. We need to correct that and the best way to do that is to get kids excited about that and to get them engaged.”

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Source: Montgomery Newspapers –