FEAR OF HEIGHTS CAN STOP US CLIMBING MOUNTAINS, FEAR OF SHARKS CAN STOP US SWIMMING IN THE OCEAN, THEN DOES IT FOLLOW THAT FEAR OF MATHEMATICS CAN STOP US FROM DOING MATHEMATICS QUESTIONS?

A. D'Arcy-Warmington

Statistica (AUSTRALIA)
‘Read the question properly and think what is the topic’, and ‘Use your brain’ or ‘Just have a go, write something’ are all commonly heard phrases in any mathematics class. Panic, fear and doubt are often the first reactions at the thought of reading a mathematics question, does this shield mathematical ability from shining through onto the test paper? What if the brain acts to encumber the mathematical thought process before students even view or read a question. The explanation for not being able to start or complete a question may lie with the inability to control the fear of mathematics rather than a lack of mathematical ability or knowledge. So, can the fear of the subject of mathematics itself or the fear of attempting a mathematics question be one reason for failure in a test and not the lack of ability. The work of Beilock and Lyons (2011) investigated the different ways the brain, in highly mathematics-anxious students, reacted to the knowledge that the topic of the following question would be mathematics and not a word-related one. The results of the brain activity showed that when the area associated with the control of fear was triggered in highly mathematics-anxious students with hearing a mathematics question, 83% of questions were answered correctly. However, the highly mathematics-anxious students who did not activate this associated area of the brain answered only 68% of the questions correctly. Too often these students are regarded as lazy or not allocating the topic the required time or effort by educators. From a students’ point of view, they may lose confidence in their mathematical ability and build a wall preventing comprehension and learning. Doubts and confusion about earlier comprehended material may arise so students can regress on one topic whilst learning a new topic. The unending spiral of anxiety grows larger until even the easiest of topics is a step too far and then all chance of mathematical learning has diminished. So the remedy for helping highly mathematics-anxious students may be utilising this control of fear rather than allocating extra exercises. This paper will discuss simple activities that may aid these students to improve their score and understanding, recognise and control their fear and decrease mathematical anxiety.