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Sian Beilock
Sian Beilock Credit: Courtesy of Barnard College

You stare at the math test, pencil frozen. You know the answer to this problem. You know you know the answer to this problem. Yet, somehow, the answer doesn’t come.

The issue may not be what you know, but rather how you feel. Anxiety can hinder people even when they’re solving the most basic math problems, according to a 2017 study on adults with high math anxiety. When given basic arithmetic problems like 5+3, math-anxious people could still solve them accurately, but scientists saw different patterns of activity in the areas of the brain associated with focus and effortful thinking. People who weren’t anxious about math performed better when they activated these areas less. That strategy didn’t seem to help math-anxious people.

This suggests that math-anxious people didn’t approach the problems as efficiently as people with low math anxiety, perhaps overthinking easy problems. It’s also possible that they had to put effort into avoiding negative thoughts about math.

To learn more about anxiety’s effects on the brain, The Hechinger Report spoke with one of the authors of the study, cognitive scientist Sian Beilock. She knows something about working under pressure: a nationally competitive soccer goalie in her youth, Beilock went on to earn PhDs in both sports science and psychology. Now the president of Barnard College, her work focuses on how attitude and anxiety affect people’s performance in high-stakes situations, whether in sports or school. She’s tracked how anxiety about math affects performance, especially for girls, and how these attitudes can get passed down from parents.

RELATED: Teaching kids not to be scared of math might help them achieve

Her latest work include a study on how attitudes towards math in first grade can create either a vicious or virtuous cycle of achievement and a report on how to support STEM learning when multiple members of the family have math anxiety. The author of “Choke” and “How the Body Knows Its Mind,” Beilock talked about her research on anxiety and stereotype threat, and how she talks about math with her daughter.

What is stereotype threat and how does it affect your ability to learn? 

Stereotype threat is a phenomenon coined by Claude Steele. The idea is that when you’re aware of a negative stereotype about how you should perform, because of your social group or your gender, it can actually lead you to perform more poorly than you otherwise could. When you’re worried or anxious about how you should perform, for many reasons – maybe you don’t want to confirm a stereotype that girls aren’t good at math, or you’re just worried about performing well on a test – essentially it robs you of your ability to focus and show what you know or even take in or make sense of information.

There was a recent study from Stanford which said that boys tend to out-perform girls in math in more affluent school districts, where fathers tend to be the primary breadwinners. What are your thoughts on the study? 

I think it’s really interesting. I think the question is, why? What’s different in these areas? Gender differences are really influenced by the environment around you.

One of my colleagues, Susan Levine, had a great paper several years ago showing that in middle and upper-class families you see gender differences in spatial ability that you don’t see in lower-SES [socio-economic status] kids. What this puts forth is that the environment is such an important factor in how we even think about what some of these differences mean.

Is it also possible in the lower-income communities, boys are the ones facing stereotype threat? 

I wouldn’t even talk about it in terms of stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is one phenomenon in terms of how it affects performance. I’m interested more broadly in the kinds of situations that create anxiety, that rob us of the cognitive horsepower that we need to succeed.

“If you are going to do one take-home from my work, it’s that it’s not just what we know, but how we feel really matters – and that the environmental situations we create can have a big impact on whether we thrive to our potential or not.”

I talk about this broadly as choking under pressure or having math anxiety or anxiety about a particular subject. That anxiety could come from not wanting to confirm a negative stereotype, or it just could come because you want to do really well on this test and you’re worried about it. If you are going to do one take-home from my work, it’s that it’s not just what we know, but how we feel really matters – and that the environmental situations we create can have a big impact on whether we thrive to our potential or not.

What research are you working on now?

We had a Science paper a couple years ago looking at what would happen if we had parents of young kids, first graders, not just doing bedtime reading with their kid, but actually bedtime math instead. We tested an app that’s developed by the Bedtime Math Foundation that’s free, non-profit. It’s word problems that are for parents and kids to do together. We showed that doing bedtime math relative to bedtime reading was really beneficial for kids, especially for those whose parents were anxious about math. We’ve been following the kids. It started in first grade and we’ve got a paper under review where we’re looking at them in third grade. And then we’ll be continuing to follow them.

RELATED: Mix a little math into that bedtime story

Do you play this app with your own daughter?

We do it at restaurants when we’re waiting for food. For the research, we didn’t call it Bedtime Math. We called it Bedtime Learn Together, so it was BLT. So my daughter would say, “Let’s do sandwich problems!” The idea is that math should be part of the vernacular. When your kid asks, “Can I have some gummy bears?” say, “How many?” She says seven, then you give her three. Then you say, “How many more do you need?” That sort of thing. And be clear that it’s something that you learn. You hear really educated adults bragging about not being good at math. We know that that sends a signal that you either have it or you don’t.

This story about math anxiety was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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