For many people, math can be a source of serious anxiety. Whether they are studying for a test in school or gearing up for the math sections of the SAT or ACT, many students experience a sense of dread when faced with the prospect of solving difficult math problems. I have lost count of the number of students who have told me that they find math to be “painful.” Well, new research from the University of Chicago suggests that for some students, this pain may be quite literal.
In a recent article, professors Ian Lyons and Sian Beilock suggest that for students with high levels of math anxiety, the anticipation of performing math may actually lead to feelings of genuine physical pain. In their study, Lyons and Beilock identified individuals who experience high levels of math anxiety. Using sophisticated sensors, the professors then measured the neural responses of these individuals when they were asked to solve difficult math problems. They found a significant increase in neural activity in areas of the brain associated with processing physical pain. Moreover, individuals with higher levels of anxiety experienced greater increases in this activity.
Interestingly, it was not the actual act of doing the math that triggered the pain reaction; rather, it was the anticipation of doing the math. Lyons and Beilock reasoned that it was only natural that these high-math-anxiety individuals would take steps to avoid math and the painful reactions it triggers, going so far as to hypothesize that these feelings of physical pain can turn students “away from taking math classes or even entire math-related career paths.”
These findings reinforce the notion that math can be a daunting proposition for students who experience test anxiety. But the good news that comes from the study is that it is the anticipation of doing math, not the math itself, that causes pain. Thus, if students can lower their anxiety about doing math, they can lower the feelings of pain they associate with it.
And there are certainly ways to do just that. We have written about techniques to reduce anxiety in previous posts. Here are some of the techniques our tutors use to help students less anxious about doing math specifically:
- Develop a Process: Every student thinks differently – one student’s method for tackling geometry questions may not work for another student. Developing an individualized learning plan, in which a student learns in the way that is best for him or her, is essential for gaining confidence in math.
- Learn Test-Taking Strategies: Difficult SAT and ACT math questions can be intimidating for anyone. By learning math-specific strategies, such as plugging in numbers, testing answer choices, and making effective use of their calculator, students can reduce the anxiety associated with these questions.
- Simulation: Rigorous practice on real test questions is one of the best things students can do to reinforce test strategies and overcome anxiety. Our tutors work exclusively with official SAT and ACT tests.
Learning math is rarely ever fun, especially for students who experience high math anxiety. Having a comprehensive plan of attack and working with an experienced and compassionate tutor can make math literally less painful.