Anxiety has a way of showing up at the worst times. When it’s brought to life by a test or an exam, it can get in the way of performance regardless of how well the test material is understood. Maths tests in particular can spark enormous anxiety, but a new study has found a way settle it down, improve performance and create lasting change by altering the brain’s fear circuits.
What are the symptoms of test anxiety?
If you’ve struggled with any sort of anxiety, you’ll be familiar with the signs. The symptoms can be physical (nausea, clamminess, short shallow breathing, racy heart) or psychological (memory loss, freezing, decreased confidence, avoidance, feeling isolated – like you’re the only one who feels this way).
How does anxiety interfere with performance?
Research has found that anxiety interferes with working memory, particularly when the task involves some sort of computation, such as maths. Reduced working memory means that there is less capacity to access existing knowledge and apply it to the problem at hand. This leads to longer reaction times and more errors, all of which compromise performance.
And this is how to beat it …
It’s long been accepted that phobias and fears can be eased with safe exposure to whatever it is that’s causing the fear. Drawing on this, researchers explored whether exposure to maths would ease maths anxiety and improve test performance.
The study, published in the The Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted on 46 third grade children. At the beginning of the study, the children were assessed on their levels of anxiety and placed into either a high anxiety group or a low anxiety, depending on their scores.
Brain imaging showed that when children in the high anxiety group performed simple addition problems, the fear circuits in the brain and the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible that triggers an anxiety response) lit up.
Each child’s then participated in an 8 week one-to-one tutoring program, consisting of 22 lessons of addition and subtraction.
Following their 8 weeks of individual tutoring, all children performed better on the maths problems. By exposing children to more maths problems, their anxiety was reduced and their performance improved.
Those who started out the study with high anxiety showed a significant reduction in anxiety. Brain imaging showed that the activity in the fear circuits and amygdala were significantly reduced in those children. Those in the low anxiety group showed no change, which is not surprising given that they were already low on anxiety scores.
Why is these findings so exciting?
The promise of this study is that tutoring can work on a physiological level to actually relieve anxiety long term. Teaching children the skills to manage anxiety is important, but if anxiety can be turned around on a physiological level, the way forward is easier and the effects will be more long lasting.
Other ways to help alleviate maths anxiety:
- ‘Brains can grow stronger.’ Let that be the mantra. People who are good at maths aren’t generally born that way. They make their brain stronger and better at maths through hard work, effort and practice. Children and teens who believe brains can grow will likely work harder to reach their goals and will openly and willingly approach challenge. Children who don’t believe brains can change are less likely to persevere in the face of challenge or ask for support when it’s needed. Learning maths is like learning another language – with the right amount of time and effort, anyone can do it.
- Read through the test first before answering anything. This seems to have an effect on test anxiety, as the unpredictability of what’s to come is taken away. Precious mental resources can then applied to the task at hand, rather than consumed by worrying about what lies ahead.
Anxiety can be intrusive and persistent, and when it comes to maths it can be enduring, discouraging children who can be good at maths from pursuing careers that draw on it heavily. The good news is that anxiety can be dealt with – science is telling us that – and the wisdom and creativity that would otherwise be smothered by anxiety, can flourish.