Teaching Math, teaching anxiety

Teachers' math worries could affect students' performance
Feb 10, 2010 — 12:00 am EST

Teaching Math, teaching anxiety. Credit Shutterstock

Going to school means learning new skills and facts in such subjects as reading, math, science, history, art or music. Teachers teach and students learn, and many scientists are interested in finding ways to improve both the teaching and learning processes.

Some researchers, such as Sian Beilock and Susan Levine, are trying to learn about learning. Beilock and Levine are psychologists at the University of Chicago. Psychologists study the ways people think and behave, and these researchers want to know how a person’s thoughts and behavior are related.

In a new study about the way kids learn math in elementary school, Beilock and Levine found a surprising relationship between what female teachers think and what female students learn: If a female teacher is uncomfortable with her own math skills, then her female students are more likely to believe that boys are better than girls at math.

“If these girls keep getting math-anxious female teachers in later grades, it may create a snowball effect on their math achievement,” Levine told Science News. In other words, girls may end up learning math anxiety from their teachers. The study suggests that if these girls grow up believing that boys are better at math than girls are, then these girls may not do as well as they would have if they were more confident.

Just as students find certain subjects to be difficult, teachers can find certain subjects to be difficult to learn — and teach. The subject of math can be particularly difficult for everyone. Researchers use the word “anxiety” to describe such feelings: anxiety is uneasiness or worry. (Many people, for example, have anxiety about going to the dentist because they’re worried about pain.)

The new study found that when a teacher has anxiety about math, that feeling can influence how her female students feel about math. The study involved 65 girls, 52 boys and 17 first- and second-grade teachers in elementary schools in the Midwest. The students took math achievement tests at the beginning and end of the school year, and the researchers compared the scores.

The researchers also gave the students tests to tell whether the students believed that a math superstar had to be a boy. Then the researchers turned to the teachers: To find out which teachers were anxious about math, the researchers asked the teachers how they felt at times when they came across math, such as when reading a sales receipt. A teacher who got nervous looking at the numbers on a sales receipt, for example, was probably anxious about math.

Boys, on average, were unaffected by a teacher’s anxiety. On average, girls with math-anxious teachers scored lower on the end-of-they-year math tests than other girls in the study did. Plus, on the test showing whether someone thought a math superstar had to be a boy, 20 girls showed feeling that boys would be better at math — and all of these girls had been taught by female teachers who had math anxiety.

According to surveys done before this one, college students who want to become elementary school teachers have the highest levels of anxiety about math. Plus, nine of every 10 elementary teachers are women, Levine said.

This study was small, and it’s often difficult to see large patterns in small studies, David Geary told Science News. Geary, a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, studies how children learn math. “This is an interesting study, but the results need to be interpreted as preliminary and in need of replication with a larger sample,” Geary said. That means that the results are just showing something that might be happening, but more studies should be done. If more studies find the same trend as this one, then it’s possible that a teacher’s anxiety over math really is affecting her female students.

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