Math Anxiety: Catch It!

by Robert Pondiscio
January 26th, 2010

Teachers who lack confidence in their own mathematical abilities seem to pass that anxiety on to their female students, according to a provocative new study

“The more anxious a teacher was, the more likely a girl was to believe boys are good at math and girls are good at reading, and the more likely she was to perform worse at math relative to boys and to girls who don’t endorse the stereotype,” says Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, who led the study.   

Seventeen first and second-grade teachers’ anxiety about math was assessed by the researchers at the beginning of the school year. “At the beginning of the year, there was no relationship between teacher anxiety and the students’ math abilities. In fact, there was no difference in math abilities between boys and girls,” BusinessWeek notes.  “But toward the end of the school year, the higher a teacher’s math anxiety, the lower the girls’ math achievement. Teacher anxieties did not affect boys similarly.”

The Los Angeles Times says Beilock and her colleagues ”aren’t sure exactly how the angst was transmitted from teachers to students.”

Perhaps math-anxious teachers call on girls to solve math problems less frequently; praise boys more effusively; or simply imply that it’s not important for girls to be good at math. The teachers could also telegraph their own discomfort with math by hesitating when answering questions or speaking in a different tone of voice, and some girls internalize that attitude, Beilock said.

“This is a concern, because if these girls keep getting math-anxious female teachers in later grades, it may create a snowball effect on their math achievement,” says University of Chicago psychologist and study coauthor Susan Levine.  The study was published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.