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Understanding Your Students: Numeracy and Math Anxiety

Many students come into higher education with math anxiety, carrying both experiences in the math classroom. Getting these students engaged relies on understanding their particular needs and reteaching them math in a way that makes sense to them.

Numeracy is the ability to understand and work with numbers. Math Anxiety is “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of math problems in everyday life, work and school” (Dowker, Sarker & Looi, 2016). Quantitative literacy (QL) is the skills that inform science and business including accounting, economics, financial literacy, and business math and statistics to “many different real-world problems” (Roohr, Gra & Lieu, 2014). I became interested in this learning area as a dean interacting with new students in our online Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. Many learners come to our MBA without an undergraduate business degree. These learners have backgrounds ranging from psychology to graphic arts and healthcare only had some exposure to business math. These students are enrolled in two foundational courses that include competencies in accounting, finance, business math and statistics. According to Chang and Beilock (2016), about 25% of U.S. undergraduate students “suffer from a moderate to high degree of math anxiety.” We recognize this anxiety for some new MBA learners and provide support for students to overcome this concern.

Research shows that reading literacy is strongly related to understanding learning letters (grapheme) and the sound of words (phoneme). In school, we listen, speak, read and write language, and generally become more proficient with reading literacy. Math is often a distinct subject taught by specialists, and math curriculum is not always blended with other content. I share this example as number literacy does not seem to follow the same learning patterns of reading literacy. Various studies test the hypothesis that dyslexia (reading disorders) and dyscalculia (math disorders) are associated with two largely independent cognitive deficits—or a phonological deficit in the case of dyslexia and a deficit in the number module in the case of dyscalculia (Landerl, et al., 2009). Interestingly, both disorders affect about 6% of the population and neither disorder affects general intelligence (Paul & Fine, 2014).

Research shows we are born with basic math skills. For example, three-month-old infants recognize numeracy and symbols up to three (Dehaene, 2011). However, as we grow, some of us have difficulty with working memory like carrying numbers in our head and remembering more than 7 to 9 numbers (Toll et al., 2011). Some students need help overcoming this issue. We also need to appreciate learning number sense has distinct qualities like meaning of numbers, number relationships, number magnitude, operations involving numbers, and referents for numbers and qualities (The National Council of Teachers, 1999). Students who were taught in a number sense environment generally perform better and suffer less math anxiety. We overcome math anxiety by learning more about numbers, not by shying away from using numbers. Chang and Beilock (2016) state, “Math anxiety often results in avoidance of math and math-related situations altogether.” Students who do not overcome math anxiety and avoid using numbers hinder income growth and even alter career paths.

Higher education professionals need to recognize that students may learn new skills to overcome fear of math and may learn to even love numbers. Numeracy studies show that overcoming math anxiety is mostly about “how individuals interpret their math-related experiences” (Gerardo, Shaw, & Maloney, 2018, p. 151). The math anxiety-math performance link is most often related to our individual experience with math and the environmental factors involved (Chang & Beilock, 2016). Many students with math anxiety did not have positive experiences in school. We need to help students unlearn the ways they experienced math and re-learn new ways to overcome anxiety including appreciating the qualities of number sense. Number sense grows through exploring numbers, using them and paying attention to the ways numbers relate to other numbers. We learn best when we apply the information to real-life problems and learn from mistakes.

We often hear numbers are the language of business. In our MBA, we blend reading, writing and research with number sense through Scenario-Based Learning (Clark (2013) and Financial Literacy. Financial Literacy is understanding the topic of money and the ability to understand and use financial reporting, ratios, and budgeting among others. Financial literacy focuses on behaviors, systems and outcomes, using accounting, finance, economics and data analytics. Financial literacy helps improve our confidence, sentiment and helps us make better decisions with data (Lusardi, 2019). The use of statistics, spreadsheets and financial reporting is blended in our MBA foundations courses with reading and research literacy.

Another way students overcome math anxiety is by exploring key financial terms, financial statements and ratios to help measure a business’s health in a real-world scenario. Students assume a role in a scenario organization, with multiple assignments to learn the information and get it right. They learn to analyze an organization’s financial statements; analyze the organization’s financial performance against industry benchmarks; understand how functional areas, departments and business units contribute to its financial success; and evaluate the alignment of financial key performance indicators (KPIs) and the organization structure. This information is organized in learning chunks or cognitive processing that recodes information into meaningful groups (Fountain & Doyle, 2012). Learning financial literacy in a positive emotional climate with patient, respectful faculty, creates a new experience of math for learners, increasing student self-confidence and self-efficacy—or our “self-belief in the capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments” (Bandura, 1986).

Other measures of overcoming math anxiety in our foundational courses are the use of live and recorded webinars and live and recorded study groups. In one-hour webinars, a faculty member or dean leads students through content, explaining the readings, key terms and assignments. In the one-hour study groups, led by work-study students with a dean or faculty member, module assignments are the focus, providing examples of how to apply the learning and ways to study best, based on neuroscience research. In both experiences, students are shown how to use the material in the scenario with examples. Research shows that learners with high math anxiety benefit most from peer tutoring and study group interaction (Bjalkebring, 2019). After these webinars and study groups, students often tell us, “I feel so much better.” The fear is replaced by a new and positive learning experience.

Finally, mentioned above, is the importance of faculty recognizing and addressing math anxiety. Research shows that faculty who lacked empathy toward student difficulties or who exhibit negative attitudes towards math “passed on more anxiety or negative attitude to their students, resulting in poor learning outcomes” (Lanius et al., 2022). Conversely, respectful understanding of student anxiety on the part of faculty helps learners overcome math anxiety and creates a new experience in a positive emotional learning environment. To paraphrase Dr. Mariale Hardiman (2012) of Johns Hopkins University, it’s not just what students learn, it’s how they learn it.

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