|Photo: David Ludden|
|Photo: Psychology Today|
In his autobiography, psychologist S. S. Stevens (1974) relates how he spent his undergraduate years at Stanford assiduously avoiding math and sciences classes. He enjoyed the humanities, especially philosophy, writing, and debating. However, as senior year rolled around, he realized his liberal arts education had taught him “to talk about anything, but to do nothing” (p. 402). So he signed up for some freshman science classes and made a successful application to Harvard Medical School. But when he got there, he was daunted by the math requirement, so his adviser recommended he switch to psychology.
Wandering through the psychology building, Stevens happened upon a middle-aged man crunching numbers by hand and plotting the results on a graph. He said the data fit a power function, but Stevens responded that he didn’t know much math. The man looked at him sternly and said: “The only way to get over an inferiority complex about mathematics is to learn some” (p. 404).That man, as it turned out, was the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner.
Stevens took Skinner’s advice to heart and learned some math. He then went on to have an illustrious career in psychology, first as a graduate student and later as a professor at Harvard. And every one of his contributions to psychology, from his “theory of scales” to what is now known as Steven’s power law, are all mathematically based.
If you find yourself getting tense just thinking about math, you’re not alone. Many people suffer from math anxiety. And until recently, most people could find jobs that didn’t require any sort of math beyond basic arithmetic. But in the technologically driven 21st century, higher-level math skills are becoming increasingly important.
To learn more about the math anxiety-performance relationship, University of Chicago psychologist Alana Foley led a team of international researchers who looked at mathematics education in 64 countries. They measured average math performance and average reported math anxiety for each country, and they found, as expected, that there’s a tendency for math performance to go up when math anxiety goes down. For example, students in Switzerland reported low math anxiety, and their math scores were fairly high. By comparison, students in Thailand exhibited high math anxiety and fairly low math scores.
What’s not clear from these data, however, is what comes first. Does math anxiety lead to lower performance, or does difficulty in learning math lead to anxiety? One piece of the puzzle may be a cluster of seven school systems that don’t follow the trend, in that they are the highest ranked in terms of math performance, and yet their students also report high levels of math anxiety. In other words, it’s possible for students to feel anxious about a math test and still do well on it...
Ludden ends by saying, "Just like any other skill, you can learn to do math if you need to use it. Instead of telling our kids (and ourselves) that math is hard, we need to show them how relevant these skills are in the high-tech lives they’re living."
Source: Psychology Today (blog)