Youth Education Plus

Nerves and numbers

More than any other discipline, Mathematics tends to evoke awe and dread in a number of people. While every student likes and dislikes different subjects, the proportion of people who evince fear at anything remotely mathematical, especially computations, is significantly higher. Even people who are highly educated and hold Master’s degrees in History or Philosophy sometimes shy away from performing simple calculations. What is it about Maths that engenders such phobic reactions? Is the subject really tougher than other disciplines or does it make different demands on us? Why don’t we come across people who dread English or Economics or Sociology in equal measure?

People who feel stressed or nervous at the mere thought of approaching any mathematical task may have developed math anxiety. Psychologist, Mark Ashcraft, defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance.” A number of reasons possibly contribute to the prevalence of this fear of numbers. The first involves a cultural view of mathematical prowess. In India, if you are good at Maths, you are considered to be smart, or even smarter than someone who is good with words. By putting Maths on a pedestal, we then inadvertently exert pressure on those who don’t excel at it by viewing them in a less favourable light. As a result, students who find it difficult in the early grades are dissuaded from pursuing the subject at higher levels because they see themselves as unfit for the subject. What these students don’t realize is that their very fear of numbers prevents them from performing well in the subject.

In a paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2002, Mark Ashcraft notes that an unfortunate consequence of math anxiety is that students avoid mathematical tasks. As a result, they do not develop their mathematical competence, which further fuels their anxiety, setting off a self-perpetuating cycle. Ashcraft points out that math anxiety does not correlate highly with overall intelligence, especially verbal intelligence. Further, students’ performance plummets on timed mental math tasks that rely heavily on working memory, or our ability to hold items in our mental notepad. Worrying thoughts impede a person’s ability to perform mental math as working memory has limited capacity. Thus, anxious thoughts can sabotage your performance by occupying your finite working memory.

The reasons we need to alleviate this anxiety is not only to produce more mathematicians. A number of professions that do not demand much mathematical thinking assume a basic level of competence on numerical skills. But people who have math anxiety can fumble on their jobs, often with disastrous consequences. For example, a study reported a strong correlation between nurses’ self-reported math anxiety, self-efficacy and mathematical ability while figuring out drug dosages. Likewise, the fields like psychology and sociology also require basic statistical knowledge. Further, in order to be informed citizens and to critically evaluate news reports that often spin off statistics, an understanding of numbers is essential.

Thus, instead of shying away from math tasks, students who are afraid of the subject should try and conquer their fears. In her book Choke, psychologist Sein Beilock says one of the best ways to overcome your anxiety is to practice under test-like conditions. But before you start practicing sums, you need to ensure that you comprehend the concepts. Ask a teacher or peer to explain a topic if you find that you have gaps in your understanding. Once you have understood a topic, practice sums. The more your practice mimics the exam situation, the lower your chances of succumbing to nerves on the actual day of the test. So, instead of simply doing sums at random, you must try and work out actual papers under timed conditions. If you don’t have access to past papers, try creating one based on questions in your books.

However, while practice is essential, it may not be enough. In a study, published in Cerebral Cortex in 2011, Ian Lyons and Sein Beilock found that what happens in the brain when a highly anxious student anticipates a math task is a predictor of his or her performance. Being able to control your emotions and focus on the task at hand is likely to lead to favourable outcomes. In an interview in U ChicagoNews in October 2011, Beilock says, “overcoming math anxiety appears to be less about what you know and more about convincing yourself to just buckle down and get to it.” So engaging in relaxation activities like deep breathing or visualization just before you do a math test may alleviate your anxiety to more manageable levels. Further, you may quell those worrying thoughts that cloud your working memory by saying to yourself, “I did fine on those practice tests. So, I am sure I will do well on the test today.”

The author is director, PRAYATNA. Email:

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 4:40:37 PM |

Next Story