Beads of sweat trickle down your forehead, your heart rapidly beats, and you can't catch your breath. You're up against the clock. You reassure yourself. You've been studying a lot. But suddenly, you're immobile.
This isn't a marathon. It's a math test.
Mark Ashcraft, a cognitive psychologist at UNLV, has been studying why using the quadratic formula is a cinch for some of us while others freeze up when it comes to solving problems as simple as subtracting numbers.
Update: Since this story was published, 85 percent of students who participated in the Summer Bridge program passed the math placement test will not have to take remedial math their freshman year.
Math anxiety, said Ashcraft, is a person's negative reaction to situations involving numbers and math calculations, and it can occur as early as the second grade and last well into adulthood.
Individuals with math anxiety often have sufficient math skills, but statistically they have lower math achievement and proficiency scores. They are more likely avoid taking elective math courses in high school or college. They also avoid math-related careers, which include high-need areas such as science, technology, engineering, and business.
Ashcraft, who teaches statistics, recalled a student turning in an exam with only his name written on it.
"It was the only thing he wrote. He just couldn't remember a thing," Ashcraft said. "Here was a good student, and he couldn't do anything on the exam."
In one of Ashcraft's studies, a college student burst into tears when she couldn't figure out the answer to a subtraction problem.
Fear of math can cause emotional and physical reactions including blackout moments, especially in high-stakes situations like SAT or ACT testing. It also occurs in social setting. Imagine friends designate you as the tip calculator for the group at dinner, but you really wish you'd gotten separate checks.
Being Part of the Equation
Ashcraft isn't a mathematician. He started researching math anxiety when he was, ironically, stuck on a math problem. While grading papers 30 years ago, he subtracted seven from 50 and knew right away it was 43. But when he subtracted seven from 75, he froze.
Then the epiphany: "For a cognitive psychologist when one mental process takes longer than another, I think there is something there to investigate," Ashcraft said.
He links the issue to our "working memory," which we rely on when we need to pay attention. For example, if you're driving and talking on the phone, your working memory is in high gear listening to the phone conversation. But working memory is a limited resource, which is why when you get off the phone you can't explicitly remember driving from point A to point B.
Some people use that limited working memory worrying about the anxiety instead of focusing on the math task at hand. When carrying numbers or borrowing, the demand on the working memory becomes more intense.
Piecing Together the Puzzle
Ashcraft has spent his life's work on math anxiety, a relatively little known subject, and he's pieced together some of the reasons why it occurs.
For elementary school-aged children, reading and writing skills often are emphasized at home and in class. Arithmetic falls by the wayside and needs to be practiced more at home, Ashcraft said. Anxiety can also occur among children who get poor math grades and receive negative feedback from teachers and parents.
He also attributes the anxiety to teachers, who have specialized in education but not math. Young students can pick up on the emotions of a teacher who lacks a strong math foundation and has anxiety about teaching it.
"Teachers who are math-anxioustranslate negative attitudes especially to children of the same sex," he said.
Ashcraft said societal misconceptions prevail too, such as the stereotype that boys are inherently better at math than girls. Girls pick up on those cues and that affects their scores. Some kids are prone to high levels of anxiety and are embarrassed if they have to work out a math problem on a blackboard in front of their classmates. Even pop culture influences the way we view math. To be good at math is to be considered something of a nerd, Ashcraft said.
Math anxiety seems to peak in ninth and 10th grades, Ashcraft said.
"People single out algebra as the time that math was a real stumbling block and source of grief," he said.
Ashcraft said understanding root causes of math anxiety has other implications.
Some people think math skills are something you're born with. They believe if they're naturally good at it, they'll excel. If not, no matter how much they practice, they'll never be good with math.
On the flip side, people who believe being good at math comes with practice are much more likely to react to a bad grade by studying harder.
So in his latest study, Ashcraft is testing how the attitudes toward math of college freshmen change with more intensive teaching.
He's surveying incoming freshmen in a math skills class through the Academic Success Center's Summer Bridge program. The program helps students who did not place into college-level math courses and would need to take non-credit remedial courses. The program gives students an opportunity to retake math placement tests. Students spend three hours a day, five days a week in class with a tutor from the Academic Success Center.
He's gauging how students felt about math at the beginning of the course and he'll survey them again when the program ends. Did the math skills class help? Did their attitudes change? Did constant practice and studying help them?
"What keeps me going is the scientific puzzle and how we can pin down the answer," Ashcraft said.?