May 17, 2023
Rethinking Math

Math and Mental Health: Tackling Anxiety and Burnout

Pamela Burdman
Math and Mental Health: Tackling Anxiety and Burnout

Math anxiety and burnout are bearing down on high school students in a post-pandemic academic landscape. And math classes’ lack of relevance to the contemporary world appears to have something to do with it.

A downturn in math scores has been driven by COVID-19 challenges—not just school closures but also the social and emotional tolls of those closures. But math learning could start to recover with more innovative course options, math lessons that reflect the students’ experiences in the world, and a better understanding of what colleges are looking for. At least that’s the thinking of some experts on the topic—students themselves.

More than 30 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds surveyed this year by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) said their anxiety over math has increased in the past two years, while a whopping 83 percent said they experienced overall academic burnout. 

The students surveyed were from the United States and the United Kingdom, and were participants in SIAM’s annual MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge. When asked to weigh in on the causes behind falling math scores, 66 percent cited lack of motivation and focus. About half pointed to the disconnect between math instruction and its relevance to “real life.” And 43 percent blamed the burnout that they are experiencing. 

 It’s well known that student mental health crises have spiked in the last several years. Early this month, in a mental health survey, nearly 60 percent of 18- to 22-year-old college students said they had accessed mental health care during their K–12 years, many of them during high school.

Understanding math pressure to alleviate anxiety

The math students from SIAM’s survey had suggestions about how to raise those falling math scores. Their ideas are not only insightful, they’re achievable. 

Addressing the underlying issues of math anxiety and burnout were atop their list with 45 percent. But how? The students (44 percent of them) emphasized making math classes more applicable to everyday life, and uncovering learning gaps and addressing them with extra help (42 percent).

 What they are suggesting is what experts have been working toward: making math more engaging for all students, not just for those seeking out STEM degrees or careers. 

High school counselors surveyed for our 2022 report Calculating the Odds: Counselor Views on Math Coursetaking and College Admissions noted that students often face undue pressure to accelerate in math, leading many to rush through the curriculum to take courses such as calculus, even when they are not planning to pursue STEM majors. 

“This often leads to unnecessary stress and struggle. In some cases it undermines math confidence for these students,” shared one counselor.

Indeed, the SIAM survey revealed that, for a majority of students, it was the desire to get into a good college or university that kept them going in math over the last few years. This tracks with a prior study, which found that many students cited getting into college as their reason for accelerating to a calculus course—even though many lacked an intrinsic interest in math or STEM, and even though only about 5 percent of students who do so benefit by taking the next-level course in college. 

Looking beyond the calculus standard of success

While calculus is considered an important stepping stone to STEM degrees and careers, there are other ways for high school and college students—STEM and non-STEM majors alike—to show rigor and understanding of advanced math concepts.

In fact, negative math experience and lack of confidence can create “cognitive interference” that shuts down a student’s ability to focus on schoolwork, according to Colleen Ganley, associate professor of psychology at Florida State University and a panelist for our March conference, The Mathematics of Opportunity: Advancing by Degrees. This pattern is especially prevalent, Ganley noted, during math testing, which may lead to inaccurate measures of a student’s actual capacity for math learning. 

“If you’re anxious about something, whether it’s math or anything else, you’re more likely to avoid that,” Ganley said in the TMO session From Math Anxiety to Math Belonging. “We’ve studied it more at older ages and see people less likely to go into careers that involve math.” 

Alleviating the pressure to race through the math curriculum may be a helpful strategy for managing stress, reducing math anxiety, and getting more students—including underrepresented students—to master higher-order math skills and prepare for STEM majors and careers. Traditional courses on the calculus path are one route, but another comprises new, innovative quantitative reasoning courses that keep students engaged in mathematics, students who might otherwise be turned off. 

New approaches to assessment may also help alleviate the pressure and anxiety, Ganley noted: “There are small changes, especially, the way we talk about assessment and the way we talk about standardized testing. This is not to show what you don’t know. This is to show what you know and what you’ve learned.”

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