Tutoring diminishes math-related anxiety

By REGINA PALATINI

Who doesn’t suffer from stress when dealing with math? There are so many people who suffer apprehension when faced with math problems that research and studies abound regarding how to help people cope with this stress. Given that math is an important part of engineering, science and technology, people who plan to pursue studies in these areas must learn to embrace math.

According to a recently published study in the Sept. 9 issue of Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that anxiety stemming from working with math problems can be relieved with a one-on-one tutoring program. Also, they describe how abnormal responses in the fear circuits in the brain can be repaired.

Frank Richardson and Richard Suinn developed the first math anxiety measurement scale in 1972 when they proposed the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (MARS).

Several researchers have since conducted empirical studies on the same topic. They determined that math anxiety is related to poor math performance on math achievement assessments and that overall anxiety is related to negative attitudes concerning math.

“The most exciting aspect of our findings is that cognitive tutoring not only improves performance, but is also anxiety-reducing. It was surprising that we could, in fact, get remediation of math anxiety,” said Vinod Menon, the senior author of the new study, in a press release.

Many math students suffer from apprehension even though they are proficient in the subject. These feelings can continue throughout their education and affect their future academic choices.

“Math anxiety has been under the radar. People think it will just go away, but for many children and adults, it doesn’t,” said Kaustubh Supekar, the lead author of the study, in the press release.

The researchers approached this study with the idea that exposure-based therapy, commonly used for treating phobias, may be successful in reducing math anxiety. This type of therapy consists of exposing the subject to the situation or object they fear in a safe, calm environment.

The subjects in the study consisted of 46 third-grade students. Prior to receiving tutoring, each subject completed a test that assessed their level of math anxiety. Using these scores, the group was divided into two sub-groups, one whose subjects have high math anxiety and one whose subjects display low math anxiety.

Then, researchers conducted standard neuropsychological assessments and collected functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) images while the subjects completed simple addition math problems.

The fMRI images of subjects with high math anxiety displayed activation in the brain’s fear regions such as the amygdala. In extreme cases, the amygdala responds to severe traumas with a difficult-to-erase fear response, as in post-traumatic stress disorder. When an individual experiences fear, with it comes worried thoughts, physical manifestations including increased heart rate, sweating and increased respiration rate and behaviors such as attempting to escape the situation that caused the fear.

After baseline testing, the subjects received 22 one-on-one tutoring lessons on subtraction and addition during an eight-week period. At the conclusion of the tutoring period, the math anxiety test was administered and fMRI imaging was conducted. All subjects scored higher on subtraction and addition testing after tutoring.

The high anxiety subgroup subjects displayed reduced anxiety, while the subjects in the low anxiety group showed no change. Also, fMRI imaging of the fear circuits in the amygdala in the high anxiety subgroup showed no activation of the fear region when working on math problems. The authors conclude that this confirms that tutoring helped treat the anxiety itself, instead of providing the subjects with a coping mechanism that involves other brain circuits.

“It’s reassuring that we could actually help these children reduce anxiety by mere exposure to problems,” Supekar said in the press release.

Further studies by the researchers will involve attempts to determine what aspects of the tutoring helped diminish the subjects’ anxiety and whether tutoring via a computer can produce the same brain circuit improvements and a similar reduction in anxiety.

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