Infinite Insights Episode 5 – Math Anxiety and Timed Tests

It is hard to imagine that in this day and age – with all the new brain research, neuroscience, sophisticated studies at hand – that we still have to convince people that math anxiety is a real thing. This reminds me of a true medical story:

In 1980 an Australian doctor[1] discovered that (and proved overwhelmingly) that ulcers were not caused by excess acid in the stomach – as had been thought for the previous 100 years – but were caused by the bacteria H. Pylori. This meant that for the first time in the history of the world ulcers were no longer an incurable lifetime condition, but were easily cured with a week of antibiotics. Ten years later only 1% of doctors had given up the old way of treating ulcers (bland food, milk, etc) in favor of antibiotics!

Ten years!

What an incredible shame for the ulcer patients who did not get proper treatment simply because their doctors refused to give up the old way of thinking.

The math community is in a similar situation regarding math anxiety. We now know what it is. We know its causes. And yet we continue with the old way of thinking!

What is Math Anxiety and where does it come from?

It is not entirely clear what comes first – the chicken or the egg? Does math anxiety cause poor math performance? Or does poor math performance lead to math anxiety? There are three theories[2] on the relationship between the two: deficit theory, debilitating/anxiety model, and the reciprocal theory.

  1. In the deficit theory, a student begins with some sort of poor performance in mathematics – a quiz, time test, embarassing wrong answer – and these memories generate the feeling of math anxiety.
  2. In the debilitating/anxiety model, a student develops high math anxiety from the surrounding environment, which then reduces performance by causing avoidance of math-related activities.
  3. The third model is the reciprocal theory, which is a bit of a hybrid of the first two. In this theory math anxiety and poor math performance for a negative feedback loop that continues to elevate the math anxiety and reduce the math performance.

Though we are not entirely certain which comes first, we know that math anxiety comes from stress. Brain-imaging technology has provided great insight into how math anxiety affects the brain. Studies have shown that when children are put under stress, they are unable to execute math problems successfully. The stress inhibits the working memory – the area of the brain where math facts are held. Stressful math situations cause worries and stress. The math and the worrying then compete for the same working memory. Math anxiety even impacts students with high amounts of working memory – students who typically might do well in math class.

Other things about math anxiety that we know:

  • Math anxiety appears to affect a significant proportion of school and university students at all ages, as well as adults; girls report it more than boys
  • Math anxiety affects working memory; addressing the anxiety and providing strategies to control it may be effective
  • Math anxiety affects about 50 percent of the U.S. population and more women than men.


What are the effects of math Anxiety?

As previously mentioned, the physical effects of math anxiety are undeniable thanks for MRI scanning. The amygdala is responsible for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. Ashcraft and Krause (2007) found that math anxiety severely impacts student’s ability to enjoy math, motivation to take more math or do well in math.

When a student suffers from math anxiety a typical response is “it is just in the student’s head”. While is is in the student’s head, it is now clear that it is physical. The amygdala is being impacted. The cure will need to be more than just hand-waving and hoping the student outgrows it.


Where does it come from?

There are five major contributors to the stress/math anxiety/poor math performance cycle: parents, teachers, society, a focus on speed, and poor teaching.


Jan Hoffman wrote an article on results of a new study stating math anxiety is contagious between parent and child. Here is her surprising conclusion: Math anxiety is transmitted during homework time at home. The more parents help with mathematics, the more likely math anxiety is transmitted from the parent to the child.

We all have heard adults practically brag about how bad they are with math or how much they hate the subject. Many of those adults identify algebra as the onset of their math anxiety, although much research has shown that it can begin earlier. Regardless of when the onset of math anxiety is, when those math-anxious adults become homework-helping parents, math anxiety is transmitted to the child[4] like a virus. And the cycle continues.

Parental math anxiety[5] has been exacerbated even further due to Common Core Math Standards and schools introducing new methods of teaching and learning math, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who has studied the effects of homework.


Teachers who experience math anxiety transmit it to their students. Girls are especially affected[7] when a teacher publicly announces math hatred before she picks up the chalk. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that female — but not male — mathematical achievement was diminished in response to a female teacher’s mathematical anxiety. The effect was correlated: the higher a teacher’s anxiety, the lower the scores.


We all have experienced an increase in society’s pressure to do well and get into college. Classrooms have become highly competitive environments with an increase in high-stakes testing. High-stakes academic cultures have a dark side by increasing the pressure on students to perform well, which then increases stress, resulting in math anxiety.

The damage starts early in the United States, with school districts requiring young children to take timed math tests as early as the age of 5. This is despite research[10] that has shown that timed tests are the direct cause of the early onset of math anxiety.


Mathematics is rarely taught as a creative endeavor, in which all students can participate in some way. When math is taught as a performance subject – where the focus is merely to get questions correct – math anxiety can grow. Math is even used as a tool for weeding out students – a fact students are aware of – which only increased the stress-anxiety-performance feedback loop. More than any other subject math is about tests, grades, homework and competitions.


How can we prevent math anxiety?

  • Allow math to be seen as an open set of ideas[12][13] that they can play with and explore. Students see themselves as capable and they see math as a playground. Unfortunately, people have a much more negative relationship because  they see math as a set of procedures and calculations, that is all about speed and performance – and they are terrified of failure and believe that struggle means you are not a “math person.”
  • Assess fluency WITHOUT using timed tests[14]
  • Avoid phrases like “I’m not a math person”[15]
  • Create a “math positive” atmosphere at home and in the classroom[16]
  • Establish a positive nighttime routine with parents and student. Bedtime Math[17] has been shown to reduce math anxiety while also increase math performance at school.
  • Going to tutors[18]

I know this is a load of information. Rather than going the way of the ostrich and sticking our head in the sand, let’s address the issue of math anxiety head on. Begin by informing yourself and others. Start a conversation with teachers and parents. Collaborate on how to make tiny changes in your classroom.

And best of all…watch your students benefit from all this.





[1] “Why it Took Everybody So Long to Acknowledge that Bacteria Cause ….” Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[2] “Espresso 6 – Cambridge Mathematics.” 31 May. 2017, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[3] “Square Root of Kids’ Math Anxiety: Their Parents’ Help – Math Tutor ….” 30 Aug. 2017, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[4] “Parents Transmit their Own Math-Anxiety to their Kids |” 31 Aug. 2015, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[5] “Parents’ math anxiety can undermine children’s math achievement ….” 10 Aug. 2015, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[6] “OPINION: It’s time to stop the clock on math anxiety. Here’s the latest ….” 3 Apr. 2017, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[7] “Stop telling kids you’re bad at math. You are spreading math anxiety ….” 25 Apr. 2016, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[8] “The Math Anxiety-Performance Link – Human Performance Lab.”,%20Foley%20et%20al.pdf. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[9] “Research Suggests Timed Tests Cause Math Anxiety – YouCubed.” Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[10] “Tips for Tackling Timed Tests and Math Anxiety | Edutopia.” 11 May. 2017, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[11] “Math Anxiety – Evergreen Teaching & Learning.” 20 Apr. 2017, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[12] “7 Reasons behind Math Anxiety and How to Prevent It.” Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[13] “8 Empowering Ways to Beat Math Anxiety – MathFour.” Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[14] “Alternative Ways of Developing and Assessing Fluency with Basic Facts.” 28 Oct. 2011, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[15] “The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’ – The Atlantic.” 28 Oct. 2013, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[16] “Creating a Math-Positive Learning Environment – Inspired Ideas ….” 16 Jun. 2017, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[17] “Here’s the Proof—Bedtime Math.” Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[18] “1 Tutor + 1 Student = Better Math Scores, Less Fear : Shots – Health ….” 8 Sep. 2015, Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

Other Links

The Math Anxiety-Performance Link: A Global Phenomenon

Dispelling Myths About Mathematics

Cambridge Mathematics

Are parents transmitting math anxiety to their children somehow?

It’s time to stop the clock on math anxiety. Here’s the latest research on how.

Stop telling kids you’re bad at math. You are spreading math anxiety ‘like a virus.’

Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety



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