*Columbia and Barnard Association of Women in Math hosted Barnard President Sian Beilock yesterday. President Beilock discussed her research, which is focused on how anxiety affects math ability and how to decrease math-related anxiety. Sports Editor Abby Rubel, who is neutral about math herself, attended the talk.*

Beilock opened her talk by telling the small audience how excited she was to give it. She “was really excited that this was my end-of-day activity,” she said. Her enthusiasm was palpable, and she spoke passionately about her research, but made sure to put it in terms that a layperson (or English major) could understand.

She first described the general area of her research. Usually, Beilock said, cognitive scientists study what happens when we perform at our best. Her research, on the other hand, focuses on what happens when we don’t, especially in academic math and science environments which commonly cause the most anxiety in students. She then emphasized the key point of her talk: that there is something about anxiety that robs people of their ability to perform at their best. It’s not just about the content, she said, it’s also how the material is taught.

Next, Beilock introduced the main questions her research sought to address. First, she said, “You hear all the time, ‘I’m not a math person.’ Where does that come from? What makes it socially acceptable?” Unfortunately, the rest of her talk did not address these questions, but this line of thinking led Beilock to ask if math anxiety exists even in young kids, and what if anything makes math different. The remainder of her talk focused on these questions.

A math-anxiety survey that Beilock and her team gave to first-graders showed that even they had math anxiety. Most had a medium amount, but there were plenty who had a great deal of math anxiety and others who had barely any. A graph of the results showed a normal distribution. (Think of your garden-variety bell curve.)

Then Beilock and her team gave more surveys and tests to the first-grader and determined that math anxiety related to math ability. Students with low math anxiety did better, and vice versa. Beilock was careful to point out that the data did not show if the anxiety caused the low performance, or if low performance made students anxious. She and her team needed more information to determine which came first.

At this point, Beilock asked the audience which college major had the highest math anxiety. She joked that psychologists always say psychology, but actually the answer is elementary education majors, who are predominantly women. Could there then be a relationship between teacher anxiety and student anxiety? Would teachers with high math anxiety pass it on to their students, affecting the students’ performance?

Yes, Beilock said, and the effect is particularly prominent in girls. When kids are in classrooms with teachers with high math anxiety, both genders do worse in math, but girls do much worse. (Interestingly, Beilock’s graph showed that, when placed with teachers with low math anxiety, girls slightly outperform boys, but she did not discuss this.)

Beilock hypothesized that teachers with high math anxiety are “very dogmatic” and “invoke fear” in their students because the teachers themselves are not confident in their math ability. She also said that teachers with high math anxiety tend to do the problems for the students, rather than letting them reason through the problem. The same is true of parents, she said.

Next, Beilock and her team set out to determine if math anxiety can actually change students’ performance. They used fMRI to determine which parts of the brain were working when high math anxiety students were merely anticipating a math problem rather than solving it to measure their response to knowing a math problem was imminent. With math-anxious people, two areas involved in visceral threat detection were active when they anticipated a problem. In other words, Beilock said, anticipating a math problem is “almost painful” for math-anxious people. Their anxiety robs them of “cognitive horsepower.”

She then discussed a few ways to reduce math anxiety. Parents doing “bedtime math” with their children has been shown to help the children, she said, although it did not help the parents. She also said that making students write down their feelings before a math test has helped. “Academic success isn’t just what you know,” she said; anxiety and motivation play a large role.

A brief question and answer session followed, although Beilock mostly just repeated themes from her talk. She did discuss why girls are more prone to math anxiety than boys. Before school starts, she said, young boys and girls have “own stereotypes.” That is, girls tend to think girls are better, and boys tend to think boys are better. Once they go to school, boys’ own stereotypes tend to persist longer, she said. They are confident that they’re better for longer than girls, who tend to see both genders as equal by kindergarten.

One audience member asked Beilock what implications her research has for Barnard, which has 34% of its student body in a STEM field (compared to 22% nationally). Beilock discussed the need to support students in their interests, even if they don’t have much experience in a particular field. This answer, however, was not particularly satisfying because it did not directly relate her research to her plans for the college and seemed platitudinous. Overall, though, it was good to know that Barnard’s current president does something other than thinking about whether or not to have plastic surgery.

*Photo via Facebook, graph via Bwog Staff*