A Study of Math Anxiety/Math Avoidance in Preservice Elementary Teachers

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  • A Study of Math Anxiety/Math Avoidance in Preservice Elementary TeachersAuthor(s): William P. Kelly and William K. TomhaveSource: The Arithmetic Teacher, Vol. 32, No. 5 (January 1985), pp. 51-53Published by: National Council of Teachers of MathematicsStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41192533 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 17:10

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  • A Study of Math Anxiety/Math Avoidance in Preservice Elementary Teachers

    by William P. Kelly and William K. Tomhave

    In her 1972 study, Lucy Sells (1978) indicated that 92 percent of the female first-year students in the University of California had such inadequate math- ematics preparation that they had ef- fectively closed the door on 70 per- cent of the career choices available to them. Sell's conclusions and subse- quent research on math avoidance were the bases for the research we conducted during the 1980-1981 school year at the University of Min- nesota, Morris, a liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1700. This study was directed at documenting math avoidance among female students on the campus.

    The results showed that the enroll- ment percentages for men and women for the lower-level courses such as math concepts, introduction to statis- tics, college algebra, and precalculus matched almost exactly the ratio of men to women for the college enroll- ment as a whole. Of 787 students enrolled in these courses, 381 , or 48.4 percent, were women. However, the data for the courses required for the preprofessional programs and those leading to a major in mathematics indicated that of 1029 students en- rolled, only 31 1 , or 30.2 percent, were women. Thus, there is a strong indica- tion that women at this college are avoiding the mathematics courses

    William P. Kelly is chairman of the Department of Education at Regis College in Denver, CO 80221. William K. Tomhave teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris, MN 56267. They are both involved in in-service and preser- vice work in mathematics education and have a special interest in math anxiety.

    January 1985

    necessary for many professional and technological careers.

    Background Tobias (1978) sees math avoidance as the natural consequence of a set of attitudes that develop as a result of a student's early educational experi- ences. During these years there is an emphasis on timed tests, right an- swers, ambiguous vocabulary (words such as root, plane, altitude), and difficult word problems. As a result, many students have math anxiety, a fear of failure when they attempt to learn the content and process of math- ematics. Although there is insufficient evidence that a causal link exists be- tween anxiety and math avoidance, it is Tobias's opinion that a student who avoids mathematics in high school and college usually manifests a rela- tively high degree of math anxiety at the same time.

    The literature indicates that both men and women can be afflicted by math anxiety, but women apparently suffer more (Burton 1979; Osen 1974; Tobias 1980). However, there is no support for the general belief that fe- males cannot do well in mathematics (Fennema and Sherman 1977); nor is there any pattern of consistent su- periority demonstrated by one sex over the other (Fennema 1974). Thus, most of the reasons for women's non- achievement in mathematics must be placed under the heading of societal expectations', women are not sup- posed to do well in mathematics; it is a male domain.

    As a result of our study, and chal- lenged by the apparent connection

    between math avoidance and math anxiety, we decided to measure the extent to which the math avoiders on this campus were afflicted with math anxiety.

    Our plan Since math avoiders are difficult to identify in groups, we had to choose a sample by using groups of students that we believed would be populated by math avoiders. These groups were freshmen who had had no college pre- paratory mathematics courses; sen- iors who had had no college mathe- matics courses; freshmen who were enrolled in college algebra (and thus had had minimal college preparation in mathematics); and a group of stu- dents who were enrolled in a work- shop for the math anxious. In addi- tion, we included forty-three elementary education majors - only six had gone beyond college algebra in their mathematics preparation.

    In order to assess mathematics anx- iety, we chose to administer the Math- ematics Anxiety Rating Scale (MARS), a ninety-eight-item self-rat- ing scale. Each item on the scale represents a situation that may arouse anxiety and is designated by the nota- tions not at all, a little, a fair amount, much, or very much. The examiner scores 1" point for not at all through 5 points for very much on each item. The sum of the points for the ninety- eight items provides the total score for the instrument, giving a range of scores from 98 through 490 (Richard- son and Suinn 1972). Low scores indi- cate low math anxiety; high scores indicate high math anxiety. A sample


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  • of the normative data for the MARS is given in table 1 .

    We separated the scores of the women elementary education majors from those of the men to determine whether or not being both a woman and an elementary education major would produce a math anxiety rating score higher than those of the other groups. (Our results appear in table 2.)

    We noted the following:

    1. On the average, the elementary education majors scored higher (230.0) on the MARS than any of the other groups except those in the math anxious workshop (321.6).

    2. The elementary education males scored lower (194.0) than any other group.

    3. The elementary education females scored higher on the MARS (245.6) than any other group except those in the math anxious workshop.

    4. With the exception of the 1980 males (173.1), all elementary edu- cation subgroups - 1980 females (250.1), 1981 males (218.3), and 1981 females (240.7)- scored high- er on the MARS than any of the other groups except the math anx- ious workshop students.

    In order to provide a convenient method of comparing the data from our various groups, we compared our results to the normative data (table 3).

    These data suggest that a high pro- portion of the female elementary edu- cation majors are math anxious. The female elementary education majors are the only group that parallels the math anxious group in terms of the proportion who score above the 50th percentile.

    If the results of our study are repre- sentative of preservice teacher educa- tion, then women elementary school teachers, who constitute the majority of elementary school teachers, may be perpetuating math anxiety with young girls in their own classrooms.

    Preventive measures

    Math anxiety seems to be exhibited by two categories of people: students learning mathematics and some pro-


    Table 1 Normative Data for MARS

    University of Missouri sample: n = 397 mean = 215.38 standard deviation = 65.29

    Percentile ranks for given raw scores Score: 123 165 189 215 228 255 267 325

    Percentile: 5 20 40 50 60 75 80 95 (Richardson and Suinn 1972)

    Colorado State University ' sample (two testings - same subjects): n = 119

    ' mean = 187.3, 179.9*

    standard deviation = 55.5, 55.9

    Percentile ranks for given raw scores Score: 124,114 146,133 178,169 227,223 289,292

    Percentile: 10 25 50 75 90 * Second number refers to data from the second testing. (Suinn et al. 1973)

    Table 2 Sample Data for MARS, University of Minnesota, Morris

    Number Mean

    Group 1 Seniors who had no experience in college mathematics 15 198.7 Group 2 Freshmen in college algebra (minimal preparation) 14 195.1 Group 3 College freshmen with no preparatory mathematics 12 208.1 Group 4 Math anxious workshop students 10 321.6 Group 5 Elementary education male 13 194.0

    a) 1980 7 173.1 b) 1981 6 218.3

    Group 6 Elementary education female 30 245.6 a) 1980 17 250.1 b) 1981 13 239.8

    Group 7 Elementary education combined 43 230.0

    Table 3 Comparison of Sample Data to Normative Percentiles- Numbers of Subjects at or above the Given Percentile

    Group/percentile 5 20 25 40 50 60 75 80 95 Mean

    Norm raw score 123 56 5 189 25 228 255 267 325 215.38 Math anxious

    (n = 10) 10 10 10 10 10 10 9 9 5 321.6 Elementary education

    females (1980, = 17) 17 17 17 16 11 10 9 7 2 250.1

    Elementary education females (1981, n= 13) 13 11 10 9 9 8 7 6 1 240.3

    Elementary education males (1981, n = 6) 666444100 233.4

    Freshmen (n = 13) 11 11 11 7 6 3 1 1 0 208.1

    Seniors (n = 15) 14 13 11 7 3 3 2 2 1 198.7

    College algebra (ai = 14) 13 12 11 7 6 3 1 1 0 195.1

    Elementary education males (1980, n = 7) 733100000 173.1

    spective teachers who will be teaching mathematics.

    We recommend that prospective teachers who are math anxious re- ceive immediate help in the form of support groups directed by profes-

    sional mathematics teachers who un- derstand math anxiety and some of its causes (Fauth and Jacobs 1980). Math anxious teachers should be encour- aged to trace the origins of their fears and to work at conquering them

    Arithmetic Teacher

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  • through exposure to mathematics concepts and processes in a non- threatening environment.

    Students, however, should be con- fronted with their math anxiety and its causes as soon as it appears. The anecdotal records of our subjects indi- cated that most math anxious people can probably trace the cause of their anxiety to some of the following: timed tests, overemphasis on right answers and the right method, work- ing at the blackboard in front of peers, lack of acceptance of nontraditional problem-solving methods, and such negative counseling as, "You won't need this," or "You aren't smart enough to learn this." These condi- tions may still be prevalent in class- rooms, and they can be harmful influ- ences in the development of a positive attitude toward learning mathematics (Fennema 1982).

    Further study We are currently conducting research on the effect of mathematics teachers' attitudes on their students. Although it is only conjecture, we believe that students who are surrounded by con- fident teachers who are excited and positive about their role in the stu- dents' learning process will exhibit fewer symptoms of math ailxiety than students whose teachers are them- selves anxious, uncomfortable, and negative about teaching mathematics.


    Burton, Grace M. "Regardless of Sex." Mathe- matics Teacher 72 (April 1979):261-70.

    Fauth, Gloria C, and Judith E. Jacobs. "Equi- ty in Mathematics Education: The Education Leader's Role." Educational Leadership (March 1980):485-90.

    Fennema, Elizabeth. "Mathematics Learning and the Sexes: A Review." Journal for Re- search in Mathematics Education 5 (May 1974): 126-39.

    . From an address to the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Minne- apolis, 1982.

    Fennema, Elizabeth, and J. Sherman. "Sex- related Diffrences in Mathematics Achieve- ment, Spatial Visualization, and Affective Factors." American Educational Research Journal 14 (Winter 1977):51-71.

    Osen, L. Women in Mathematics. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1974.

    Richardson, Frank C, and Richard M. Suinn. "The Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale: Psychometric Data." Journal of Counselling Psychology (November 1972):551-54.

    January 1985

    Rocky Mountain Behavioral Sciences Institute. "Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale." Fort Collins, CO 80651.

    Sells, Lucy. "Mathematics: A Critical Filter." Science Teacher 45 (February 1978):28-29.

    Suinn, Richard M., A. Edi, J. Micoletti, and P. R. Spinelli. "The MARS, a Measure of Mathematics Anxiety: Psychometric Data." Journal of Clinical Psychology (November 1973):373-74.

    Tobias, Sheila. "Math Anxiety: What You Can Do about It." Today's Education (Septem- ber-October 1980):26GS-29GS.

    . Overcoming Mathematics Anxiety. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978. W

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    Article Contentsp. 51p. 52p. 53

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Arithmetic Teacher, Vol. 32, No. 5 (January 1985), pp. 1-59Front MatterOne Point of View: Looking Back, I Think I See the Future . . . [pp. 2-3]From the File [pp. 3-3]Readers' Dialogue [pp. 4, 39]Let's Do ItPartitioning Sets for Number Concepts, Place Value, and Long Division [pp. 6-11]

    Understanding Word Problems [pp. 13-17]Problem-solving Opportunities [pp. 18-20]Olympiads for Elementary Schools [pp. 22-24]Mathematics in the Elementary Grades: The Soviet Experience [pp. 26-26]Ideas [pp. 27-32]Problem Solving: Tips For Teachers [pp. 34-35]Some Findings on Conceptual Development of Computational Skills [pp. 36-38]What Every Elementary School Mathematics Teacher Should Read-Twenty-two Opinions [pp. 40-43]From the File [pp. 43-43]A Subtraction Algorithm for the Upper Grades [pp. 44-45]From the File [pp. 45-45]Palindromes and the "Law of 11" [pp. 46-47]Fun and Arithmetic Practice with Days and Dates [pp. 48-50]A Study of Math Anxiety/Math Avoidance in Preservice Elementary Teachers [pp. 51-53]Computer Corner [pp. 54-55]Research ReportHomework: Yes or No? [pp. 56-56]

    Reviewing and ViewingComputer MaterialsReview: untitled [pp. 57-57]Review: untitled [pp. 57-57]Review: untitled [pp. 57-58]Review: untitled [pp. 58-58]

    New Books for PupilsReview: untitled [pp. 58-58]

    New Books for TeachersFrom NCTMReview: untitled [pp. 59-59]

    EtceteraReview: untitled [pp. 59-59]Review: untitled [pp. 59-59]

    Back Matter