For most of us, going to math class at school each day was more of a chore than anything else, that more often than not let you feeling deflated. Now, a new study says that there is legitimately “math anxiety” and it’s very, very real, and is known to especially impact women and people of colour throughout their schooling years. Combined with stereotype threat — or negative expectations of performance linked to gender and racial biases — math anxiety, or trauma, shuts a lot of people down, and it shuts them out of STEM. If you think you aren’t good at math simply because you had a habit of freezing up during timed math quizzes or exams, it turns out that there’s a chance it wasn’t you specifically, It was the testing method.
According to the study’s authors, stereotype threat happens when people feel “at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong. This usually refers to females being reminded of the stereotype that males are better at mathematics.” Stereotype threat can also occur with regard to other marginalised groups. The authors of the study, which was published in Frontiers in Psychology, write that people don’t perform as well in math when exposed to stereotypes, such as the idea that white men are better at math than women and people of colour are, an idea that doesn’t have basis in fact.
So what are the concerns? Well, the mental health consequences of this stereotyping can be debilitating to individuals. Reportedly, math trauma is a potentially debilitating form of anxiety that can result in a kind of mental freeze where you can’t think clearly, and in-turn, it can easily mess with your confidence in a negative way when it comes to numbers or problem solving.
“People who struggle to complete a timed test of math facts often experience fear, which shuts down their working memory.” If your brain is temporarily unable to function the way you want it to because of anxiety, it can reinforce a false idea that you can’t do math.” says researchers.
When reporting their findings, the researchers involved in the study noted that mental health disparities were more common than previously though and mentioned; “A consensus about what constitutes a “disparity” has not been reached despite a voluminous literature on the topic. The term disparity clearly connotes an unfair difference, but measurement of this difference is far from uniform. Here, we rely on the definition employed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its Unequal Treatment 1 report: a disparity is a difference in health care quality not due to differences in health care needs or preferences of the patient. As such, disparities can be rooted in inequalities in access to good providers, differences in insurance coverage, as well as stemming from discrimination by professionals in the clinical encounter.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) states that “negative stereotypes raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties in a test-takers mind … even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc with test performance.”
Quartz of course, has suggested their own self-healing math trauma means reframing what it means to be good at math. While those following the “drill and kill” method of teaching math where you only have a brief window of time to solve complex problems, the problem are of course older and are considered to be outdated, according to researchers, which means that speed and accuracy aren’t the benchmarks of what it means to be good at math anymore.