Saturday, February 17, 2007

High Working Memory = Math Anxiety?

There's an interesting article in Education Week entitled "Math Anxiety" Confuses the Equation for Students I'm not sure the link will work, and Ed Week requires you register before reading the full article, so I'll pull the most interesting bits out here:

..."When he first began examining the impact of anxiety on math performance, Mr. Ashcraft [professor of cognitive psychology at UNLV] assumed that students’ unease or nervousness amounted to “an attitude,” as he recalls it, rather than a phobia with a direct link to the brain’s processes. “I was wrong,” he says now.

A number of researchers, including Mr. Ashcraft, say there is evidence that anxiety disrupts student performance in math by wreaking havoc with “working memory.” Such capacity is a type of short-term memory individuals use to retain a limited amount of information while working on a task—and block out distractions and irrelevant information. Anxiety can sap students’ working memory during tests, but in other problem-solving situations, too."...

..."In a 2001 study, published by Mr. Ashcraft and Elizabeth P. Kirk, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the researchers concluded that math-anxious students struggle on problems involving carrying, borrowing, and long division."...

Interestingly, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University have found that it's students with high working memory who have the most problem with math anxiety.

"Students with a good amount of working memory rely on “really intensive strategies” to solve math problems, such as keeping track of numbers in their heads as they move from step to step, [Sian] Beilock [assistant professor of psychology at U of Chicago] explained in an interview. That approach serves them well on relatively simple math problems, but not more complicated ones, she said.

In higher-pressure situations, such as timed tests, or where researchers put students under additional stress, those high-memory students fare more poorly. Performance pressure sucks the working-memory that has served them so well previously. By contrast, individuals with relatively little working-memory capacity do not seem to suffer as much, Ms. Beilock said."

I find this particularly interesting because this is exactly the case with Xavier. His IQ testing last year showed working memory was a real strength for him. Yet he says he hates math and definitely freezes when in high pressure situations, whether math-related or not. I have noticed in working with him that he tries to do all calculations in his head. The only exception to this is long division, which he's sure he's terrible at.

So, what to do about math anxiety?

..."Still, research has shown that students can learn to overcome anxiety, Ms. Beilock said. One strategy simply involves practice with math problems, which can make it easier to retrieve answers from memory. Another is to train students to become more accustomed to working under pressure by having them take timed practice tests, for example."...

I would add to this being able to move at his own pace through the material. The constant repetition in a scope-and-sequence math curriculum adds frustration, which adds stress. (In fourth grade, Xavier refused to do a math worksheet saying, "She should know I know this by now!") Using lined paper horizontally instead of vertically, so it's easier to line up columns of numbers, has helped tremendously, particularly with long division. After a semester of math at home, he now acknowledges that, although he still doesn't like math, he's pretty good at it. I think that's a good first step toward alleviating his math anxiety.

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