February 22, 2024

Math anxiety: Self-evaluation is more important than your performance

Fear of mathematics can make children less motivated in class, feel uncomfortable and later choose a career that does not require mathematical knowledge. One study has now used data from the 2012 PISA study to investigate the factors that contribute to fear of the subject: an individual’s confidence in their own abilities and personal expectation of success play an important role. On the other hand, objective performance has a much smaller impact.

Anyone who is afraid of embarrassing themselves in class or getting bad grades on class tests can end up in a vicious cycle: If the fear gets out of control, it blocks important cognitive resources that can no longer be used to understand the subject or matter. To solve the set of tasks. This problem can affect basically all subjects, but is especially common in mathematics. The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which assessed the learning levels of students in 65 OECD countries, focused specifically on mathematical performance. In addition to the technical tasks, young people also answered questions about their personal attitudes toward the topic and potential concerns for the study.

The most important subjective factors

Dennis Szocs of the University of Cambridge in Great Britain and Enrico Tovalini of the University of Padua in Italy evaluated these data using a new approach. To find out what factors contribute to math anxiety, they correlated how participants rated their math skills, what their expectations for success were, and how important they considered the subject to be. The researchers also included actual performance.

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The result: “Subjective self-perception was more strongly related to math anxiety than actual math performance,” Szocs and Tovalini report. “The more students have the impression that they are in control of the subject matter, and the more they expect to succeed on mathematics exams, the less they fear the subject matter.” However, the association with objective performance was weaker. “Contrary to common stereotypes, 80% of teens with low math anxiety have little fear of math, while 80% of teens with high math anxiety perform moderately to high,” the researchers said.

High performance does not automatically lead to self-confidence

This effect was particularly evident in countries such as China, Japan and Singapore. “Compared to other countries, young people in these countries have very high performance in mathematics, but at the same time they report much greater anxiety in mathematics than would be expected based on their performance,” Szocs and Tovalini report. “It is important to see that high performance does not necessarily mean that personal expectations for success are very high either.”

In most countries studied, girls were also found to report being more afraid of mathematics and having lower expectations of success than boys, even though their objective performance was at a similar level. But in Germany, this gender difference was relatively less pronounced. Regarding the question of how important it is for young people to be interested in mathematics and how this affects their fear of the subject, the researchers came to a surprising result: “Children who rated mathematics as more important had similar levels of self-control and expectancy of success.” “Children who rated the topic as less important,” the team said.

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Tips on measures to combat math anxiety

According to the researchers, the findings have important implications for possible measures to reduce math anxiety. “Our findings suggest that effective interventions may depend on gradually building confidence in an individual’s sporting abilities. These may depend primarily on a deeper understanding of the subject matter, which improves personal expectation of success and sense of control over sporting activities.”

“Our findings also suggest—seemingly paradoxically—that interventions that focus exclusively on teaching young people the importance of mathematics can be counterproductive.” It may increase fear of mathematics. They recommend that “teachers should therefore not overemphasize the importance of mathematics from the beginning.” “Instead, our findings suggest that mathematics self-worth can be built ‘naturally’ by students themselves as their self-efficacy, self-concept, and perception of control improve.”

Source: Denis Szocs (University of Cambridge, UK) et al., Royal Society for Open Science, doi: 10.1098/rsos.231000