What Is Math Anxiety?


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.

The 25 Toughest Colleges to Get Into in 2018

As many students from the class of 2018 look forward to college, the next year's seniors are gearing up for the application process. The school and neighborhood analysis tool Niche has broken down which universities are the most competitive in 2018.

To compile the list below, Niche pulled data from the U.S. Department of Education on college acceptance rates and the SAT/ACT test scores of enrollees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harvard University, one of the oldest and most prestigious colleges in the U.S., ranked No.1 with an acceptance rate of 5 percent and an SAT range of 1430 to 1600 points. Right below that is California's Stanford University, also with an acceptance rate of 5 percent and a slightly lower SAT range of 1380 to 1580. Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the California Institute of Technology round out the top five.

America's best schools don't always come with the highest tuition. According to Niche, the average cost to attend Harvard after financial aid is $16,205 per year. The most expensive school on the list is Harvey Mudd in California in 14th place with a net price of $35,460.

Check out the full list below.

1. Harvard University // Cambridge, Massachusetts
2. Stanford University // Stanford, California
3. Yale University // New Haven, Connecticut
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology // Cambridge, Massachusetts
5. California Institute of Technology // Pasadena, California
6. Princeton University // Princeton, New Jersey
7. University of Chicago // Chicago
8. Columbia University // New York
9. Vanderbilt University // Nashville, Tennessee
10. Brown University // Providence, Rhode Island
11. University of Pennsylvania // Philadelphia
12. Duke University // Durham, North Carolina
13. Dartmouth College // Hanover, New Hampshire
14. Harvey Mudd College // Claremont, California
15. Pomona College // Claremont, California
16. Northwestern University // Evanston, Illinois
17. Rice University // Houston, Texas
18. Johns Hopkins University // Baltimore, Maryland
19. Swarthmore College // Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
20. Claremont McKenna College // Claremont, California
21. Washington University in St. Louis // St. Louis, Missouri
22. Cornell University // Ithaca, New York
23. Amherst College // Amherst, Massachusetts
24. Bowdoin College // Brunswick, Maine
25. Tufts University // Medford, Massachusetts

Live Smarter
The 25 Most In-Demand Job Skills Right Now, According to LinkedIn

Looking for a new job? Depending on what line of work you’re in, you may want to brush up on your technical skills—or learn some new ones. LinkedIn recently released a list of the 25 most desirable skills for 2018, and it’s clear that many employers are on the lookout for people with experience in computing, web development, and software and data engineering.

LinkedIn analyzed data from its member base of more than 500 million people to determine which skills are most needed by employers, according to Business Insider. The thousands of individual skills that can be found across member profiles were grouped into overarching categories (iOS, for instance, would go under the mobile development umbrella). Next, LinkedIn analyzed hiring and recruiting activity during an eight-month span and “identified the skill categories that belonged to members who were more likely to start a new role within a company and receive interest from companies.”

Here’s the full list:

1. Cloud and Distributed Computing
2. Statistical Analysis and Data Mining
3. Middleware and Integration Software
4. Web Architecture and Development Framework
5. User Interface Design
6. Software Revision Control Systems
7. Data Presentation
8. SEO/SEM Marketing
9. Mobile Development
10. Network and Information Security
11. Marketing Campaign Management
12. Data Engineering and Data Warehousing
13. Storage Systems and Management
14. Electronic and Electrical Engineering
15. Algorithm Design
16. Perl, Python, and Ruby
17. Shell Scripting Languages
18. Mac, Linux, and Unix Systems
19. Java Development
20. Business Intelligence
21. Software QA and User Testing
22. Virtualization
23. Automotive Services, Parts and Design
24. Economics
25. Database Management and Software

Many of these skills can be learned from the comfort of your home via online classes that are available on platforms like Udemy, Coursera, edX, and Lynda. While it couldn’t hurt to know these hard skills, 57 percent of business leaders surveyed by LinkedIn said soft skills are even more important. Those tend to be more universal across careers, with leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management being identified as the most crucial soft skills to have in 2018.

If you’re ready to start learning a new skill but don’t know where to start, check out this list of 25 ways to learn a new skill quickly.


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