Parents and Teachers Pass On Math Anxiety to Kids Like a Virus, Especially to Girls

“Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?” laments Petra Bonfert-Taylor, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College. “Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading.” After seeing one too many examples of adults “passing on [mathematical anxiety] like a virus,” Bonfert-Taylor has an important message for math-phobic parents and educators: “We are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics… [and] as a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution.”

Many people will recognize what Bonfert-Taylor calls “damaging myths” that adults perpetuate when they call themselves bad at math: “math is inherently hard, only geniuses understand it, we never liked math in the first place and nobody needs math anyway.” And while well-meaning adults may think they’re encouraging kids by sharing their own math fears, research has shown the opposite — “Anxiety over mathematics has been recognized as a grade killer.” Research has found that the problem is particularly significant for girls, who “are especially affected when a teacher publicly announces math hatred before she picks up the chalk.” Moreover, as Bonfert-Taylor explains in a Washington Post article: “A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that female — but not male — mathematical achievement was diminished in response to a female teacher’s mathematical anxiety. The effect was correlated: the higher a teacher’s anxiety, the lower the scores.”

Parents’ anxiety about math can have a similar effect on kids’ achievement and their attitude toward the subject. According to Bonfert-Taylor, “children who received math homework help from mathematically fearful parents showed weaker math achievements than their peers, which in turn resulted in increased math anxiety for the children themselves.” New research on math anxiety confirms that these parents unintentionally teach kids to expect that math will be beyond their capabilities. As Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, explains in an NPR piece, “A parent might say, ‘oh I’m not a math person, it’s okay if you’re not good at math either’… [which] can send a signal to kids about whether they can succeed.”

Fortunately, Beilock’s research has found a surprisingly easy way for parents to stop passing on math anxiety and build their children’s math confidence — and it doesn’t require overcoming their own fear of the subject. For the study, researchers gave Chicago-area families an iPad filled with math-themed stories for parents and children to read together. From first to third grade — the years when children tend to solidify their fear of math — the families read stories that included fun math facts, like the size of the world’s largest cupcake or information about walking frogs, and then kids would answer simple questions about the content. By the end of the first year, parents didn’t feel more confident in their own abilities with math, but they did feel more confident in their kids’ math potential — and equally importantly, they valued math skills more. This had a direct effect on their children’s achievement: when the kids’ math skills were tested at the end of the study, children of math-anxious parents who had participated in the program performed just as well as the kids of math-confident parents.

The most important finding from the study for parents is the importance of normalizing math at home in a way that’s relaxed and playful. While Beilock’s research used math-themed books and stories, there are many other ways to do it, from playing with math games and toys to cooking together. Bonfert-Taylor agrees, arguing that we need to teach kids that “working on mathematical skills is not unlike practicing a sport. Neither can be learned by watching others perform the activity and both require encouragement and effort… You do not need an innate mathematical ability in order to solve mathematical problems. Rather, what is required is perseverance, a willingness to take risks and feeling safe to make mistakes.” So the next time you’re sitting down to talk math with a Mighty Girl in your life, Bonfert-Taylor urges you to “try to have fun and give reassurance that perseverance will yield results. Numbers are always simple, clean and beautiful — and nothing to be afraid of.”

Study finds that mastering prerequisites—not taking calculus in high school—better predicts success in college

Phys Org 

July 10, 2018, Harvard University
calculus
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The word alone is enough strike terror into the hearts of even the most accomplished students, but for those who break out in cold sweats at the thought of differentiation rules and integral tables, Philip Sadler and Gerhard Sonnert are here to offer some hope.

Contrary to widely-held opinion, taking high school calculus isn’t necessary for success later in college calculus—what’s more important is mastering the prerequisites, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry—that lead to calculus. That’s according to a study of more than 6,000 college freshmen at 133 colleges carried out by the Science Education Department of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, led by Sadler, the Frances W. Wright Senior Lecturer on Astronomy, and by Sonnert, a Research Associate.In addition, the survey finds that weaker math students who choose to take calculus in high school actually get the most benefit from the class. The study is described in a May 2018 paper published in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education.

“We study the transition from high school to college, and on one side of that there are college professors who say calculus is really a college subject, but on the other side there are  who say calculus is really helpful for their students, and the ones who want to be scientists and engineers get a lot out of it,” Sadler said. “We wanted to see if we could settle that argument—which is more important, the math that prepares you for calculus or a first run-through when you’re in high school followed by a more serious course in college?”

The study’s results, Sadler said, provided a clear answer -a firmer grip on the subjects that led up to calculus had twice the impact of taking the subject in high school. And of those who did take calculus in high school, it was the weakest students who got the most from the class.

To get those findings, Sadler and Sonnert, designed a study that asked thousands of college freshmen to report not only demographic information, but their educational history, background and mathematics training.

“They fill out the detailed survey at the beginning of the semester…and there’s a field on the last page where the faculty member can put their grade,” Sonnert said. “Then the professors remove the first page with the ‘s name and we get their final grade and all the self-reported information.”

“We looked at how students did in college calculus…and tried to figure out what the predictive influence of taking a calculus course in high school was versus mastering those pre-calculus subjects,” Sadler said. “So, we looked at how those students did in algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus subjects like trigonometry, as well as their SAT and ACT scores, and we combined those into one factor.

That gave us a composite measure of how much they know of the math that’s preparatory for calculus,” he continued. “Then we looked at the students who had taken the subject in high school and built a statistical model to separate the two.”

While it’s difficult to pin down an exact reason for why weaker students who took calculus in high school get the most out of it, Sadler suggested that part of the difference may be chalked up to the educational environment of high school calculus.

A high school class, he said, might have just 15 or 20 students, each of whom likely receives constant support from their teacher and homework assignments are turned in daily.

“In some ways, the high school class is probably better supported,” Sadler said. “In high school, if you are not doing your work, there is an interim grade that goes home to your parents (so intervention happens when you need it.)”

By the time they arrive in college, however, students might be one of several hundred in a lecture hall, and their only opportunity for one-on-one contact with the professor comes during office hours. In some cases, attending sections and even completing problem sets is optional, so unless students make an effort to seek out tutoring help, it’s easy to fall behind.

“Even Harvard students run into this—they have trouble with learning how to be an independent learner,” Sadler said. “But one other difference is that in college the professor just assumes you know all the prerequisites, and if you don’t, or you’re not really solid in them, then what do you do? They won’t go back and cover the things that you may be missing like a teacher can do in high school.”

Another reason weaker math students take more from a high school calculus class, Sadler and Sonnert suggested, may be similar—though they may not receive top marks, the high school class gives them a chance to bone up on the basics, so by the time they get to college those students have a stronger mathematical foundation on which to build.

“To some extent, it’s like learning a foreign language,” Sonnert said. “The more you’re exposed to it, the more you do it every day, the more sentences you say, the better your sentences are. So, there may be this practice effect and facility with it that only comes in a college class.”

Ultimately, Sadler said, the study’s findings don’t suggest that students should drop high school calculus altogether, but rather shows that success in the subject—whether in high school or college—comes more from having a strong foundation. That foundation starts early and every year of great math teaching, even as far back as Algebra I in eighth grade, contributes to math proficiency that pays off in college.

“The one thing the paper says is if your background is strong, if you really know your algebra, geometry and pre-calculus, you’re going to do well in college calculus,” Sadler said. “You don’t need a high school calculus course. That was a surprise. There is no reason that those new to calculus should not take the course in college, in spite of half the students in class having taken it in high .”

“There are always these kinds of arguments in education, where people have very strong views based primarily on personal experience, and we specialize in investigating those views,” Sadler said. “As it turns out, in this case, the professors are more right than  teachers, because how well students did in courses before calculus makes the biggest difference in their   grade. But, the heavy-lifting is done by those math teachers whose efforts lay the foundation for later student success.”

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-07-mastering-prerequisitesnot-calculus-high-schoolbetter.html#jCp

Tell Your Kids: Math Makes Money

Published: Jan 28, 2017

Why learning more high school math now could make kids richer later

20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. / Courtesy Everett Collection

By

JILLIAN BERMAN

REPORTER

Parents and math teachers regularly asked by their school-aged charges whether math matters in real life may now have an answer.

In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this week, Harvard Kennedy School Policy Professor Joshua Goodman took a look at what happened to students whose high schools were required in the 1980s to increase the minimum level of coursework required to graduate. What he found is that black students were more likely to increase the number of math courses they took as a result of the change in standards and that translated into higher earnings down the line.

Put simply: About 15 years after they graduated, African-American high school graduates who went to school when these changes took effect saw their average earnings increase about 10% for every extra year of math coursework. The findings may add fuel to the steady drum of education experts, policy makers and others calling for an increased focus on science and math education. “Our efforts to increase access to high-quality science and math education likely do matter for people’s life outcomes,” Goodman said.

The increase in required math courses didn’t necessarily produce rocket scientists, Goodman notes, because the extra coursework wasn’t at a particularly high level. But becoming familiar with and practicing relatively basic math skills allowed high school graduates to pursue and excel at jobs that required some level of computational knowledge, he said.

A burgeoning industry of tech companies is enabling employers to make contributions toward their employees’ student loans.

There’s other evidence indicating that having a comfort level with basic math principles can go a long way. Requiring students to take an extra math course increases the likelihood that they’ll build wealth through real estate and other assets and decreases the likelihood that they’ll experience foreclosure or become delinquent on credit card debt. “It just seems like a lot of things that many of us take for granted in life depend on being able to do some pretty basic computation,” Goodman said.

This study indicates that local policy makers can play a role in ensuring students acquire those skills, he said. White high school graduates didn’t see much of a boost in earnings as a result of the increased math requirements and Goodman speculates that’s because they were more likely to be in better-funded schools that were already going beyond their state’s updated requirements.

Still, Goodman acknowledges that the earnings boost for black students correlated with the uptick in math education may be dependent on the state of the economy. When Goodman checked in in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the earnings of black students who graduated in the late 1980s, he found that their earnings increased significantly if they took more math. But when he looked at their earnings again after the Great Recession, he saw the earnings effect disappear.

He posits two possible explanations for this. Firstly, as high school graduates get further away from their high school career, students with fewer math skills ultimately catch up. Secondly, math skills may be more desirable during different periods. The tech boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s may have meant that math skills were particularly valuable. Whereas, the more service-oriented economy of the late 2000s may put more of an emphasis on softer skills. “Some of these results may be dependent on what the labor market looks like at any moment in time,” Goodman said.

Stop telling kids you’re bad at math. You are spreading math anxiety ‘like a virus.’

The Washington Post

April 25

When I read the following post, I was chagrined to see myself in it. Are you? Here’s why you need to change your tune. This was written by Petra Bonfert-Taylor, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College and a 2016 Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project, a non-profit working to increase the range of public voices and ideas.

By Petra Bonfert-Taylor

“How was skiing?” I asked my 14-year old daughter as she hauled her boot bag into the car. “Well, the ratio of snow to ground was definitely low,” she replied, adding that she had tried to figure the ratio of snow-to-ground during practice but had received only mystified looks. “Stop the math!” demanded a coach. “You are confusing us!”

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math? Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading. Our country’s communal math hatred may seem rather innocuous, but a more critical factor is at stake: we are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics and with that are priming our children for mathematical anxiety. As a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution.

Mathematics surrounds us, yet we have become accustomed to avoiding numerical thinking at all costs. There is no doubt that bad high school teaching and confusing textbooks are partly to blame. But a more pernicious habit does the most damage. We are perpetuating damaging myths by telling ourselves a few untruths: math is inherently hard, only geniuses understand it, we never liked math in the first place and nobody needs math anyway.

Often adults are well-meaning when telling children about their own math phobia: after all, won’t it make the children feel better if they know that others feel that way as well? Research shows the answer is a resounding “no.”

Anxiety over mathematics has been recognized as a grade killer. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel of the U.S. Department of Education has found that anxious students perform lower than their abilities. What’s more, there is growing evidence that mathematical anxiety can be passed on like a virus from teachers to students as well as from parents to children.

Girls are especially affected when a teacher publicly announces math hatred before she picks up the chalk. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that female — but not male — mathematical achievement was diminished in response to a female teacher’s mathematical anxiety. The effect was correlated: the higher a teacher’s anxiety, the lower the scores.

Parents’ mathematical anxiety can have a similar effect on their children. Researchers observed that children who received math homework help from mathematically fearful parents showed weaker math achievements than their peers, which in turn resulted in increased math anxiety for the children themselves.

 What we need to do instead is encourage our children to persevere. In France, for example, math skills are appreciated and it is quite cool to be good at math. Teaching — especially math teaching — is a highly respected and well-paid profession, even at the preschool level and children there are trained early to appreciate the art of mathematics.

Working on mathematical skills is not unlike practicing a sport: neither can be learned by watching others perform the activity and both require encouragement and effort. In the words of Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed 3,000 shots. Twenty-six times the game-winning shot has been trusted to me, and I’ve missed. I’ve lost over 300 games. I’ve failed over and over and over again, and that is why I’ve succeeded.” (Notice the math in that statement?)

You do not need an innate mathematical ability in order to solve mathematical problems. Rather, what is required is perseverance, a willingness to take risks and feeling safe to make mistakes. The next time you help a student with homework, try to repress the “I hate math” instinct, which is even worse than making a few flubs.

Instead try to have fun and give reassurance that perseverance will yield results. Numbers are always simple, clean and beautiful — and nothing to be afraid of.

The Family Roots of Math Anxiety

EdWeek

By Sarah D. Sparks on August 10, 2015 

In general, parents’ help with homework can be a major support for students. But if parents shudder at the thought of algebra or arithmetic, they can pass that math dread on to their children.

So finds the latest in a series of studies by University of Chicago psychologists including Erin MaloneySian Beilock, and Susan Levine, who study the causes and effects of performance anxiety. The new research, in the journal Psychological Science, finds that parents with math anxiety can hinder their students’ progress in math.

The researchers tracked more than 400 1st and 2nd grade students whose parents provided different levels of help with their homework. They also assessed both parents’ and kids’ attitudes toward math at the beginning and end of the school year.

Students whose parents reported high math anxiety made significantly less progress in math over the course of a year, and they were more likely to become anxious themselves—but only if their anxious parents sweated through helping them with homework.

By contrast, students with math-anxious parents who helped with homework showed no similar problems when it came to reading. While there may also be some genetic influence on math anxiety, that did not seem to be a factor here. Students whose anxious parents did not help with math homework did not show similar difficulties or fear when it came to math.  

Parent Attitudes Shape Children

Even if a parent understands how to do a problem, his or her underlying dread of math could hinder students’ enjoyment of solving problems, particularly if it plays into broader stereotypes about who should like or be good at math.

“Our work suggests that if a parent is walking around saying ‘Oh, I don’t like math,’ or ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success,” Beilock said in a statement.

That’s in line with prior research that found girls whose female elementary teachers were anxious about their own math competence showed bigger gender gaps in math performance by the end of the year, even if they had started on par with boys. Maloney told me that because nearly 9 out of 10 parents who responded in this study were women, they were unable to look at parent gender differences, but they found no differences in the effects of parent anxiety on boys versus girls. 

Overcoming Dread of Numbers

Even if parents try to control how they talk about math, fear may hinder how they help their children, the researchers found. Anxious parents may have trouble explaining math concepts, Levine noted in a statement. They may react badly when their children make mistakes while solving a problem. 

“We can’t just tell parents—especially those who are anxious about math—’Get involved,'” Maloney said in a statement on the study. “We need to develop better tools to teach parents how to most effectively help their children with math.”

We already see this for teachers. One school in New York, for example, offers weekly training to help math-anxious teachers brush up on skills and gain confidence with numbers. Another works with teachers to understand the theory of growth mindset—that math performance is not a fixed innate skill, but one that can be improved through effort.