Math Anxiety with Adult Learners

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Edward Marchewka
Colorado Technical University Online

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Mathematics anxious individuals have a tendency to avoid mathematics, which can damage their mathematics competence and can have detrimental effects on their career.  This paper looks at several studies that may point to the cause of mathematics anxiety and then examines some of the successful treatment methods available to adult learners.  The research points to past experiences and instructional errors as possible causes of mathematics anxiety; however, the exact cause or causes are still unknown.  There do exist known treatment methods for adult learners to take advantage of in order to correct the harm that may be done by mathematics anxiety.

Math Anxiety with Adult Learners

First introduced by Dreger and Aiken in 1957 (Baloglu and Zelhart, 2007), researchers have been studying mathematics anxiety as a cause of low-self confidence, a pessimistic attitude towards mathematics, poor achievement in mathematics such as low test scores, and a fear of failure (Bessant, 1995).  Mathematics anxiety, according to Ashcraft (2002), is “commonly defined as a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance” (p. 181).  McAuliffe and Trueblood (cited in Bessant, 1995) believe that mathematics anxiety may come from the more general construct of anxiety.  Some of the other causes of mathematics anxiety may be a student’s overall mathematical experience and disposition, learning preferences, and mathematics competence.  This paper will focus on adult learners with respect to the causes of mathematics anxiety and some possible solutions and methods to relieve the effects of mathematics anxiety.

Hembree (1990) sought to relate the research on mathematics anxiety with respect to its nature, effects, and relief.  His focus was on limiting the effects of the theoretical issues surrounding the idea.  He strove to answer three questions:

  1. Is there a casual direction in the relationship between mathematics anxiety and mathematics performance?
  2. Does test anxiety subsume mathematics anxiety?
  3. Are behaviors related to mathematics anxiety more pronounced in females than males? (p. 35)

Hembree’s research yielded 151 articles, with ages ranging from K-12 to postsecondary, and using meta-analysis he reached conclusions for each of his questions.  For the relationship between mathematics anxiety and mathematics performance he found that when a student’s performance in mathematics increases, their level of mathematics anxiety recedes.  Also, performance levels in mathematics can be reduced to levels associated with low mathematics anxiety via treatment on those students who displayed high anxiety.  Despite finding a direct relation between increased performance and lowered levels of anxiety, there was no evidence of the inverse relationship.  To answer his second question, he found that there are similarities; however, mathematics anxiety is not limited to taking tests but a “general fear of contact with mathematics, including classes, homework, and tests” (Hembree, 1990, p. 45).  With respect to his last question regarding gender and mathematics anxiety, despite a higher level of mathematics anxiety in females, it did not relate to a decrease in performance or an increase in mathematics avoidance.  He hypothesized two explanations: “1) Females may be more willing than males to admit their anxiety, in which case their higher levels are no more than a reflection of societal mores; 2)females may cope with anxiety better” (p. 45).

A study conducted by Jackson and Leffingwell (1999), asked the question of what types of instructor behaviors created or exacerbated anxiety and also at what point in their education did mathematics anxiety first occur.  This study was conducted over three semesters using a writing prompt to answer the question, “’Describe your worst or most challenging mathematics classroom experience from kindergarten through college’” (Jackson and Leffingwell, 1999, p. 583).  They found that only 7% of the students, from 157 responses, had a positive experience from kindergarten through college.  Of the remaining responses, Jackson and Leffingwell identified three groups of grade levels where the anxiety-producing problem occurred.  These three groups were: Elementary level, High school level and the College level (Jackson and Leffingwell, 1999, p. 583).  This paper is focused on the adult learner, thus, the continued review of this study will remain aimed at the college level group.  The respondents identified several factors from the instructor which led to their mathematics anxiety: communication and language barriers, uncaring attitude of the instructor, quality of instruction, evaluation of instruction, instructor’s dislike for the level of class, gender bias, and age discrimination (Jackson and Leffingwell, 1999).  The authors intended for instructors to use this information to alter their behavior in the classroom to limit the mathematics anxiety of their students.  The authors hoped that instructor could use these finding to provide a better learning environment.

Schacht and Stewart (1990) point out that researchers may argue that mathematics and statistics anxiety are not the same but the literature shows that the two anxieties involve many of the same feelings.  Schacht and Stewart (1990) also note that there exist several means to overcome mathematics anxiety such as “desensitization, group therapy, and math immersion” (p. 53).  However, they wanted to find something that could be implemented quickly and frugally as most academic departments do not have the resources, funding and personnel to carry-out these treatment methods.  Due to the volatility of using humor in the classroom, Schacht and Stewart chose to use a cartoon technique to control the medium.  Bogart states, “The comics act to reduce tension in their readers mainly by offering variety and a recurrent focus of interest. Their name implies that they also reduce tension through laughter” (cited in Schacht and Stewart, 1990, p. 54).  The authors studied two statistics courses at the university level and evaluated the effect the cartoons had on mathematics/statistics anxiety using a five question evaluation for the first class.  This proved to be inadequate for the author’s findings; thus, they chose to use the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (MARS) to evaluate student mathematics anxiety levels for the second class.  The MARS data did show a reduction in the student’s mathematics anxiety levels; however, it did not measure if the cartoons were effective.  The authors then asked the second class the original five questions and received similar results, stating that the cartoons were effective.  This led Schacht and Stewart (1990) to conclude that humor does help in anxiety reduction and creates a positive learning environment.

With many coping strategies available, Peskoff (2000) chose to “evaluate the relationship between college students’ level of mathematics anxiety and the strategies they employ to cope with it” (p. 34).  Peskoff (2000) compared the students’ assessment of the coping methods and faculty’s assessment of the coping strategies that the students evaluated.  From a community college, 279 students, from either remedial algebra or non-remedial pre-calculus classes participated in this study.  They completed the Composite Math Anxiety Scale (CMAS) to evaluate their mathematics anxiety.  After the exam, the students were then asked to complete a survey rating the ten mathematics anxiety coping strategies.  The ten coping strategies available were tutoring, relaxation or exercise, discussing mathematics anxiety with other students, discussing mathematics anxiety with a school counselor, using additional textbooks or review books, asking the instructor questions in class, completing homework on time, reminding oneself they are a good student, setting aside extra study time, and letting one’s instructor know one is having problems (Preskoff, 2000).  When analyzing the data, Peskoff (2000) took into account three independent variables: “Mathematics Anxiety level…, Gender…, and Course Enrollment…” (p. 34), each of the ten strategies being the dependent variables.  His analysis found that students with low mathematics anxiety used the most coping methods and valued a wider variety of the coping methods.  This was attributed to the fact that lower mathematics anxiety students have a good foot hold on coping methods and are more open to use different strategies.  High mathematics anxiety students tended to utilize the coping strategies of tutoring services and discussions with their counselors more often than low mathematics anxiety students.  However, both groups found these to coping strategies to be the least effective.  Between the sexes, the males used the relaxation or exercise coping strategy more than their female counterparts despite both groups and the faculty rating this as the least helpful.  Females tended to use the coping strategies of doing their homework and letting the instructor know they don’t understand, which were rated the highest as the most helpful by both students and faculty.  The students and faculty found that the best coping strategies were the ones in which the student met the problem head-on and was pro-active: doing homework, extra study time, asking questions, and letting their instructor know.  The avoidance methods simply remove the stressful situation from the picture to reduce mathematics anxiety.

There are many speculated reasons for the causes of mathematics anxiety.  Some of these stem from bad experiences while learning mathematics (Fiore, 1999) to student avoidance (Ashcraft, 2002) to instructional method (Clute, 1984).  Nonetheless, “there has been no thorough empirical work on the origins or causes of math anxiety” (Aschcraft, 2002, p. 184).  That does not mean it is not real, Faust stated, “math anxiety is a bona fide anxiety reaction, a phobia” (cited in, Ashcraft, 2002, p. 184).  Despite not knowing the cause, as with medicine, we can treat the symptoms.  There are several techniques available, such as changing instruction methods (Clute, 1984), using coping strategies (Peskoff, 2000) such as humor.  There exists a great body of research in the causes and the treatment of mathematics anxiety but until the root is found, a cure may be hard to find.  Until such point we can still move forward using successful coping strategies but more research needs to be done to find the main reason for mathematics anxiety as it can affect a person’s livelihood.

Author Bio

Mr. Edward Marchewka
Colorado Technical University Online

Edward Marchewka has taught at the college level in the mathematics department at Colorado Technical University-Online and at Elgin Community College, and he has also taught with MicroTrain. He is a Microsoft Certified Trainer and a CompTIA subject matter expert for CTT+, Certified Technical Trainer, Network+, and A+. He is a member of NCTM, ICTM, IMACC, ANN, MENSA and is a ComTIA IT Professional Member. He completed a BA in Liberal Studies and BS in Nuclear Engineering Technologies from Thomas Edison State College. He has completed an MS in Mathematics at Northern Illinois University where he is also currently enrolled in the MBA program. He will be starting a doctoral program at NIU in the spring of 2011 to begin an Ed.D in Adult and Higher Education with a specialization in Human Resource Development. Edward Marchewka can be reached at


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Hembree, R.  (1995). The nature, effects, and relief of mathematics anxiety.  Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 21(1), 33-46.

Jackson, C. D., & Leffingwell, R. J.  (1999).  The role of instructors in creating math anxiety in students from kindergarten through college.  Mathematics Teacher, 92(7). 583-586.

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