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M-m-m-math Anxiety? It's All in the Teaching

Supportive instructors produce eager pupils

WEDNESDAY, March 27, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Add math anxiety to the growing list of phobias haunting modern society. And for grade-schoolers who've got it, it might exact a high price later in their academic careers.

In a study of teaching methods at 65 sixth-grade classrooms throughout the Midwest, researchers found that a teacher's emphasis on getting the right answers only increased the number of students who did not ask questions, purposely didn't study and were loathe to explore new areas of math.

In contrast, the researchers, from the University of Notre Dame, found that teachers who used supportive instruction methods helped to produce students eager to tackle new and more challenging concepts.

"Those classrooms where kids reported the lowest avoidance behaviors were also the classrooms in which teachers offered the most encouragement for learning," says Julianne Turner, a psychology professor at Notre Dame, and lead author of the study, which appears in the latest Journal of Educational Psychology.

Also interesting to Turner was the value of what she terms "motivational discourse," which calls for verbally encouraging the children as they progress.

In her study, the researchers surveyed approximately 1,200 students. The researchers also were able to sit in 10 classrooms and tape all the conversations, which showed exactly how teachers interacted with their students.

What the researchers found was that teachers who were enthusiastic about the subject matter, saying things like, "This is the part I really love," or "Wow, that's interesting," were more successful in their teaching, Turner says.

"The teachers who had more of that motivational discourse were the ones who had, by and large, the more positive outcomes," she says.

That contrasts with teachers who were less enthusiastic.

"They weren't negative, but they came across as very neutral. They did not encourage the children, didn't say positive things, didn't demonstrate that math was worthwhile or interesting," Turner says.

Children in those classes reported a higher number of "avoidance behaviors": not asking questions; not trying on purpose, called "self-handicapping;" and not wanting to explore new concepts.

"There is a fair amount of research about enthusiasm in teaching," says Nathaniel Gage, professor emeritus of education and psychology at Stanford University. "And generally, enthusiasm is positively related to student achievement."

Turner's work suggests that "negative learning behaviors" picked up early in a child's schooling could hamper his later life.

"This is only a supposition, but if kids remove themselves from opportunities to learn, if they brush off bad grades, this is self-defeating in terms of learning, and could influence them as they get older," she says. "Kids with big learning issues tend to drop out of school."

Teaching methods aren't the only cause of math anxiety, Turner says. Another factor: The way the subject is taught.

While there's a movement to teach math more conceptually, the traditional approach that emphasizes rules and a right-and-wrong way to study the subject is still common. And that old approach isn't necessarily the best, Turner says.

"A typical kind of discourse in math is, 'What is the answer?' The emphasis is the right answer, while, for example, in an English class, there is more room for interpretation and recognition of multiple, plausible answers," she says.

"You are judged in front of everyone in your class, and the older children get, the more they begin to worry that they're going to be compared to others," she adds.

If they consistently get the wrong answers, they begin to feel inferior and lose confidence, Turner says.

"There is not enough separation between being good in school and being a good person," she says. "And kids who don't do well in school begin to believe that they're not good people."

What to Do: To read Turner's study, visit the Journal of Educational Psychology. To learn more about math anxiety, check out Math.com.

SOURCES: Julianne C. Turner, Ph.D., professor of psychology, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.; Nathaniel Gage, Ph.D., professor emeritus of education and psychology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; Journal of Educational Psychology
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