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What Is Math Anxiety?

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Do you panic when you have to calculate a tip? Did you ever feel like your mind went blank when confronted with a test in math class, in spite of having spent a week on the material? Do you avoid math as much as possible now?

You may have math anxiety.

And you’re not alone. While no one seems to be able to agree how many people have it—some estimate it affects 25 percent of university students and 80 percent of community college students—and the American Psychological Association doesn’t recognize math anxiety as a specific disorder in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, it can start as early as elementary school, and affects all ages, genders, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

It also happens worldwide, though some cultures report less math anxiety than others.

When you consider how much of our technology and global economy rely on numbers, math anxiety is an obstacle that hampers the population’s overall numeracy, making many unable to keep up.

Mental_floss spoke with several math education experts about the impact of math anxiety—and tools for addressing it.

“I do think math anxiety makes it a bit harder to be numerate,” says Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences. “Math anxious people often just turn off, shrug, or roll their eyes when anything mathematical is mentioned.”

The term “math anxiety” has been around since the early ‘70s, as Sheila Tobias, then provost of Wesleyan University, wrote in 1978 in Overcoming Math Anxiety. Considered one of the seminal tomes on the subject, the book was aimed at individuals, particularly women, who had given up on math, “not because of a failure of intellect, but a failure of nerve.”

And while the psychology establishment may not be ready to commit to a diagnosis, psychologists have done quite a few studies. For example, Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has confirmed Tobias’s assertion that math anxiety can affect math performance, even though the individual is perfectly capable of learning it: “A growing body of work shows that math anxiety robs people of working memory,” Beilock and cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham wrote in a 2014 article in The American Educator [PDF].

It may also equal injury—Beilock and some colleagues did an imaging study that showed that the pain centers of the brain light up when someone is having math anxiety.

The good news is that, in the last decade, math anxiety has become a hot topic, and mathematicians and math educators are eager to help students overcome it.

“The Mathematical Association of America supports resources for reducing anxiety and encouraging healthy engagement with math lessons to help students become better problem solvers in their adult lives, even if they do not go into a mathematical career,” says MAA executive director Michael Pearson.

The MAA has tips for math anxious students and their teachers:

  1. Two heads are better than one. Students who work on math problems together can exchange ideas, ask questions, and gain confidence in their skills.
  2. Create a safe space to learn from mistakes. Teachers should emphasize that it is normal to make mistakes and help students work through them to get the right answer.
  3. Make it matter. Students work harder when they understand the goal of the project.
  4. Put the anxiety to use. When they were told that a rapid heartbeat or other symptoms associated with anxiety would actually help them, students did better.
  5. Take a deep breath. Use common relaxation techniques to help combat stress at test time.

But in order to really reduce math anxiety in our culture, educators will have to go further, says Minnesota-based math educator and author Christopher Danielson, who has written several books aimed at parents who want their children to be numerate, including Which One Doesn’t Belong and Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies.

“We need to understand that anxiety is a response to an environment, not a platonic thing that exists on its own,” Danielson says.

While not everyone is anxious about math, a prevailing attitude in Western societies is that math is not necessary for everyone, and only geniuses can truly understand it. Furthermore, who is most likely to be recognized as a genius is often defined by gender (male). It is not surprising, then, that women are more likely to report having math anxiety than men.

This is bad news when that woman also happens to be an elementary school teacher. A 2010 study by Beilock and her team showed that not only did anxiety hamper the teacher’s performance, it tended to infect her female students.

Math anxious parents can also make their children fear math. “This, of all things, begins at home,” Danielson says.

Pearson agrees. “For parents, keep a positive attitude towards math to prevent math anxiety from ever becoming an issue for your student. Avoid using terms or phrases that could foster negative feelings about math. Phrases like ‘Oh, I never was good at math myself’ can send a message to students that there is something to fear about math when in reality, math drives innovation and shapes our lives.”

Hopefully, this awareness will help the next generation be less math anxious. For those already dealing with it, remember: It’s never too late to try again. Start by acing that tip calculation at lunch.

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Tulane University Offers Free Semester to Students Affected by Hurricane Maria
Infrogmation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

As Puerto Rico continues to assess the damage left by Hurricane Maria last month, one American institution is offering displaced residents some long-term hope. Tulane University in New Orleans is waiving next semester’s tuition fees for students enrolled at Puerto Rican colleges prior to the storm, Forbes reports.

From now until November 1, students whose studies were disrupted by Maria can apply for one of the limited spots still open for Tulane’s spring semester. And while guests won’t be required to pay Tulane's fees, they will still be asked to pay tuition to their home universities as Puerto Rico rebuilds. Students from other islands recovering from this year’s hurricane season, like St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are also welcome to submit applications.

Tulane knows all too well the importance of community support in the wake of disaster. The campus was closed for all of the 2005 fall semester as New Orleans dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During that time, schools around the world opened their doors to Tulane students who were displaced. The university wrote in a blog post, “It’s now our turn to pay it forward and assist students in need.”

Students looking to study as guests at Tulane this spring can fill out this form to apply.

[h/t Forbes]

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Pablo, a Groundbreaking New BBC Series, Teaches Kids About Autism
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BBC

Autism spectrum disorder affects one in 68 kids in the U.S., but there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of the condition and what it feels like to have it. As BuzzFeed reports, a new British children’s program aims to teach viewers about autism while showing kids on the spectrum characters and stories to which they can relate.

Pablo, which premiered on the BBC’s kids’ network CBeebies earlier this month, follows a 5-year-old boy as he navigates life with autism. The show uses two mediums: At the start of an episode, Pablo is played by a live actor and faces everyday scenarios, like feeling overstimulated by a noisy birthday party. When he’s working out the conflict in his head, Pablo is depicted as an animated doodle accompanied by animal friends like Noa the dinosaur and Llama the llama.

Each character illustrates a different facet of autism spectrum disorder: Noa loves problem-solving but has trouble reading facial expression, while Llama notices small details and likes repeating words she hears. On top of demonstrating the diversity of autism onscreen, the show depends on individuals with autism behind the scenes as well. Writers with autism contribute to the scripts and all of the characters are voiced by people with autism.

“It’s more than television,” the show’s creator Gráinne McGuinness said in a short documentary about the series. “It’s a movement that seeks to build awareness internationally about what it might be like to see the world from the perspective of someone with autism.”

Pablo can be watched in the UK on CBeebies or globally on the network's website.

[h/t BuzzFeed]

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