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Study: Teaching Math Anxious Students To Reframe Their Anxieties Improves Their Performance

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  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

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    New research suggests that a cognitive reappraisal strategy can help math anxious individuals regulate their negative emotions surrounding math. The study found neural evidence that this reappraisal allows for increased activity in regions of the brain responsible for arithmetic — paving the way for improved math performance. The findings were published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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    Math anxiety, as the term would suggest, is characterized by feelings of distress or fear that arise when confronted with mathematical tasks. Such anxiety can follow a person throughout their lives, not only affecting math performance in school but interfering with everyday life.

    Study authors Rachel G. Pizzie and her team wanted to explore an intervention strategy that might alleviate the effects of math anxiety by targeting its emotional component. The strategy they proposed focused on cognitive reappraisal — the practice of reframing an emotional situation before it has a chance to lend its emotional impact. They proposed that limiting the affective component of math anxiety should free up cognitive resources that can then be allocated toward mathematical tasks.

    “I am ultimately interested in how emotion interacts with learning and thinking. In this case, studying math anxiety allows us to explore how anxiety and negative emotion associated with math interferes or impedes our ability to approach mathematics or perform math calculations,” explained Pizzie, an assistant professor and the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (CAN) lab at Gallaudet University.

    “These emotional processes can have big consequences, where we see that math anxious individuals are deterred from math classes and careers that involve quantitative skills, such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Ultimately, I’m interested in understanding how these emotional processes work in the context of education, so we can create better methods for intervening to help individuals have a more positive experience, and to reduce the impact of these negative emotions on performance.”

    Pizzie and her colleagues had a sample of 74 students between the ages of 13 and 22 partake in a laboratory experiment. The students presented with varying levels of math anxiety, as measured by a questionnaire at the end of the study. While attached to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, subjects went through a series of trials where they were presented with either math or word analogy problems.

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