Math Anxiety

The brain… in my head!

A study was done at the University of Chicago looking at whether math can cause physical pain. (The rather laughable title of the article is “Doing Math Really Does Make Your Head Hurt, Says Science”. Here‘s the actual published study.)

The idea is that for people with high levels of math anxiety, just knowing that they are about to do a math problem is enough to make the pain part of their brain go off. The actual solving of the problem wasn’t such a big deal. This suggests that presenting math is an important part of teaching it and discussing it.

Some other anecdotal examples are that people are notoriously good at calculating retail discounts – “It will be 12.50 for that 25 dollar shirt that is half off”. Compare this to the more difficult “What is 25 divided by 2?” or even worse “What is 25 x 0.5?”.

Similarly compare these two questions:

  1. After the half-hour 6 o’clock news you watch an episode of Jeopardy, then Survivor, then two episodes of Wheel of Fortune. You read until it’s a quarter to 10 and then go to bed. How long did you read before you went to bed?
  2. Here’s an easy question about fractions: Solve 6 + 1/2 + 1/2 + 1 + 2 (1/2) + R = 10 – 1/4.

I got a little bit anxious looking at that second question.

What experiences do you have about teaching people with math-anxiety?