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Why Americans are bad at math

It’s no secret that Americans aren’t exactly leading the pack in mathematics.

Out of the profusion of statistics that support this fact, the most telling may be that math performance by American high school graduates is roughly the same as most high school dropouts in other countries.

My newest study in the journal Science Advances uncovers another possible reason for what Quartz has called America’s “spectacularly bad” arithmetic skills: It’s math anxiety.

To be more specific, my research shows that math anxiety leads to math avoidance. And, as anyone who has played an instrument, participated in athletics, or tried to master any nature of new task can tell you, failure to practice, or to spend time working on getting better at a thing, tends to produce less-than-stellar results when it comes to developing any type of skill.

Even those who eschew the 10,000-hour rule (that supposed magic number of practice hours required to achieve expert-level proficiency in a skill or activity), agree that some substantial amount of time and effort is needed to make progress in any field.

By this same theory, it follows logic that avoiding math guarantees substandard performance.

While researchers have proposed a link between math anxiety and math avoidance in the past—in which a vicious cycle of anxiety about math leads to poor performance when solving equations, which in turn causes even more math anxiety—no one to my knowledge has conducted an experiment in which they have empirically shown that people who are anxious about math overwhelmingly tend to avoid it—more so than other disciplines, and even when they actually do possess the ability and knowledge to solve math problems.

The math test

Together with my collaborators at The University of Chicago and Stanford University, my research team and I designed a study that could definitively assess how people behave when put to the math test.

We paid participants to correctly answer a series of math and word problems, giving them the option to choose to solve an easy or hard question each time.

Here is where it gets interesting: Participants knew they would be paid a smaller amount of money when they got the easier-ranked questions correct, and a larger amount for getting the more difficult questions right.

What we discovered was that people who had previously reported they felt afraid or nervous about math (those with the most math anxiety) wouldn’t attempt to solve hard math problems even when they knew they could score a larger amount of reward money for a correct answer and even when they had the math skills (based on actual math performance throughout the experiment) to solve the difficult problems. People with less math anxiety, on the other hand, jumped in and tackled the difficult math.

Our conclusion: When you have high levels of math anxiety, you avoid math at all costs, and you perform poorly on tests.

This was not true for the word problem portion of our test. Math-anxious folks were eager to solve the hard word problems when it was financially in their favor to do so. In other words, people don’t just avoid math because they’re bad at it—they avoid math because there’s something about it that scares them. Americans have an inherent, deep-down fear of mathematics that feels impossible to shake.

There’s a clear need to further investigate the root of this cultural fear of math. Because, like the visceral response even the thought of a large, hairy spider elicits from a person with severe arachnophobia, the psychological, physiological, and, if you’re looking at potential missed employment opportunities, even financial effects of math anxiety are real and harmful.

And just like arachnophobia, claustrophobia, or aviophobia, Americans have dubbed an entire category devoted to this condition: “math trauma,” caused by a personal history of embarrassment and humiliation experienced during math class.

The results of my study are especially concerning when you consider the fact that not only does the US lag well behind other countries on standardized math test performance, but Americans’ math test results have in fact gotten worse over time.

American losers

Every three years, students around the world sit for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam, which evaluates countries’ student skill levels in math, reading, and science. Historically, US students have done especially poorly in the math category, ranking number 28 in 2012 and number 35 in 2015. The results of the latest PISA released on Dec. 3, 2019 showed negligable improvement for American students, who ranked 35th place out of the 79 participating countries.

If nothing else, this is a clear indication that something is going awry in the way the US education system supports science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), even as policymakers and industry leaders emphasize how important STEM skills are for the US economy.

As my study showed, apparently Americans don’t want to do math even if you pay us to.

That’s an especially big problem when, increasingly, US employers want to do exactly that.

Employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% since 1990, increasing from 9.7 million to 17.3 million jobs. So, why aren’t more people focusing their energy on understanding why we as a nation are so bad at math?

Numbers psyche

Better understanding the clear link between math anxiety and math avoidance has potentially enormous benefits, as math anxiety affects not only what classes students select, but the majors they choose, and, therefore, the careers they pursue. Approximately 93% of Americans report experiencing some level of math anxiety and it’s estimated that nearly one in five US adults—17%—suffers from high levels of math anxiety. A 2016 study found that 11% of university students exhibited “high enough levels of mathematics anxiety to be in need of counseling.”

Math inequality

As with most cultural or socioeconomic phenomena, math anxiety also does not affect all groups equally. Research consistently shows that girls and women experience more math anxiety and are less confident in their math skills than boys and men are. Studies on math performance across the US education system also indicate persistent—and widening—achievement gaps between white and minority students. This skills disparity is especially dire for black, Latinx, and indigenous students.

Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that employment in math-heavy occupations will grow much faster than other occupations, potentially increasing 28% from 2016 to 2026.

As a cognitive scientist and as president of a college focused on empowering young women in society, I worry that math anxiety will prevent the next generation from qualifying for the exact jobs that will be in highest demand

Now that math anxiety has been identified as a root cause of our growing math crisis, it’s time to take action to address it.

If we don’t, we’re simply giving into fear. Science has proven that feelings are powerful, albeit categorically elusive, indicators of how we function and advance in societies. If we don’t fix our feelings toward math, how can we ensure the next generation recognizes their full potential in rewarding STEM careers?

As a country, we have a complex, advanced-stage math problem on our hands, and we better find a way to solve it.


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