By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Kudos to Abby Dester! The junior psychology/Spanish major and honors program student shared top prize for her poster on the academic effects of math anxiety on elementary school students at the Mid-East Honors Association (MEHA) annual conference at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich., April 7-9. With a membership including 26 universities in six states, MEHA works to create an intellectual, programmatic and administrative network of resources aimed at helping the region’s honors programs grow and thrive. It encourages all members, and especially conference participants, to critically think about ways in which honors education can help foster student success, leadership and engaged citizenship. Dester’s decision to pursue her field was sharpened in an AP psychology class in high school. She chose to study at IU Southeast due to the prominence of her desired majors, and the school’s emphasis on preparation for grad school and career. She also enjoyed the small class sizes and warm welcome. Putting her interest to use in the service of others, Dester has been volunteering several overnight hours each week with Crisis Text Line, a national non-profit organization that provides free crisis intervention via SMS. She spoke with Steven Krolak, academic information officer, about her research.
How did you come to this topic?
I decided to investigate the topic of mathematics anxiety as a part of a research paper for my School Psychology class. Each student chose a topic of a problem that affected students in elementary through high school and looked at how it affected students academically, socially or emotionally. I chose math anxiety because of my own history with math, and the negative feelings that I remember many of my peers and my siblings had towards math even in elementary school. The more I looked into the problem of math anxiety, the more I realized how much it could affect children’s academic performance and their lives. According to one estimate, about 48% of elementary school children have high math anxiety (HMA). That means that nearly half of children studying math feel intimidated or uncomfortable with math tasks, and many (though not all) of them will suffer academically as a result.
What are the deeper underlying roots of math anxiety?
There are many different predicting factors for math anxiety, some of which I was surprised to discover in my research. Many factors are related to modeling, or following the example of peers or authorities on how to react when faced with a math task. How a teacher or parent presents math (as scary and hard or enjoyable and manageable) in the classroom or in helping with homework can have a huge impact on how confident and anxious children feel towards math. In addition, being exposed to “math myths”—for example, that boys are always better at girls than math or that creative people can’t be good at math—can make children more apprehensive about math. On the physiological side, students who have HMA tend to have higher amygdala activity in the areas of that part of the brain that are associated with negative emotions. Basically, a combination of social and biological cues can predispose someone to have high math anxiety.
How can math anxiety express itself?
Math anxiety is a unique condition because its cause is essentially the same as its effects. The basis of math anxiety is worries or insecurities specifically related to solving math tasks or working with numbers. The effect of these worries are increased negative feelings associated with math, or even physiological responses to being presented with a math task. Students with HMA will be negatively impacted emotionally, and it can affect their self-esteem and motivation to learn in math classes. They may express anxiety about math, dislike math, avoid math classes, or experience physiological symptoms, like a racing heart or breathing heavily. From a school psychology standpoint, HMA is only a problem if it affects children’s academic achievement, which is why I chose to focus on the academic effects of math anxiety for this project. HMA is correlated with academic problems in cases where students have a lack or overabundance of motivation to succeed in math, where they have low confidence in their own abilities, or when they rely mostly on higher-level problem solving and have HMA.
What are some of the steps that can be taken to mitigate math anxiety?
Since attitudes formed towards math in elementary school can affect children’s attitudes and achievement throughout their lives, it is important to help children mitigate math anxiety, to a certain extent, early. Like with any task, a moderate amount of anxiety can be helpful because it keeps students motivated. Many solutions have been proposed to help prevent and treat math anxiety, but few have been extensively studied or used prevalently in classrooms. One suggestion for decreasing levels of math anxiety is to decrease the number of timed math tests students are given, since it puts more pressure on students. Others suggest general relaxation techniques for children struggling with HMA, like teaching effective study methods and encouraging meditation or other relaxation techniques. Making teachers and parents aware of their own biases towards math in hopes of preventing the passing on of math anxiety to students is also an important suggestion. Disproving math myths and encouraging children that they can succeed in math is key to conquering math anxiety at its start. Another promising technique for decreasing math anxiety is cognitive tutoring, which was shown to decrease amygdala activity in HMA students to the levels of their low math anxiety (LMA) peers.
How has being in the Honors Program helped you move forward in this research?
Being in the IUS Honors Program has given me the tools I need to undertake a serious research project like this, and it also gave me the opportunity to present my research at the MEHA conference. As a first-year student in the honors program, I had to complete a year-long research project which culminated in a 20+ page research paper and my oral presentation at last year’s MEHA. In my first year of the Honors Program, I developed research skills like being able to use the library’s many databases and deciding which sources were worthy of my attention and which were not. I also learned how to write a research paper (in terms of organization and actual writing), and how to present on a project in an academic setting. In the Honors Program, I was encouraged and helped in my research project by the many faculty and students involved who had experience with research.
What are the most important skills you have acquired along the way?
This was the second big research paper I wrote during my college career, and it was the first I wrote for a psychology class (which is my major). I learned a lot about APA style, how to organize an academic paper so that my ideas flowed from one to the other and my main points were clear. I also expanded on my knowledge of how to use the library website to find articles that related to my topic, the importance of having a narrow focus for an academic paper, and the ability to try lots of different combinations of keywords! Presenting my research was also a novel experience, as I had never presented a poster at a conference before. I had to compress my research so I could summarize it on one poster, and I enjoyed the challenge of having to explain my findings in a few minutes and answer questions from people nearby.
What have been the benefits of participating in the MEHA conference?
MEHA is a wonderful experience for many reasons. The conference is always a lot of fun, a you have the opportunity to interact with your fellow honors students and students from other schools on a deep intellectual, as well as a general fun, level. You can learn a lot from the other presentations in terms of content and presenting skills. Presenting at a conference helps you to build a network with other honors students, and it looks great on a graduate school or job application as well. I have now presented twice at MEHA, and I think that it has helped me develop my public speaking skills as well.
What is your career goal?
At this point, I am trying to keep my options open for graduate school, and I am considering graduate programs in psychology, occupational therapy, and social work. Right now, I am a junior with a Spanish and psychology major. Eventually, I would like to find a career where I can help people and enjoy using my skills in both Spanish and psychology.
What excites you most about psychology?
Psychology has excited me for a long time, because finding out why people do the things they do has always been fascinating to me! Human beings are so complex, so wonderfully made, and the way that social, cognitive, and biological factors intertwine to make up the human experience is something I doubt I will ever tire of learning more about. Also, learning more about psychology can enable me to help people, whether it be directly or indirectly through research like this.