Math Anxiety reduces available working memory and impacts performance (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). This is a serious finding. Many people reading this column are teachers, so keep reading, because we are going to propose a possible aid for your math-anxious students.
Working memory has been linked strongly to enhanced arithmetic performance. This doesn’t obtain for fact tables, but with addition/subtraction involving regrouping, participants with math anxiety took three times as long as non-anxious participants to solve the problem correctly. Regrouping is thought to be mediated by working memory. The “central executive” is the part of the working memory that seems to be most affected by math anxiety. Intrusive thoughts that argue for the incompetence of the problem-solver compete effectively for the time and space of the central executive. In this week’s column, I want to look at ways to take the central executive out of the problem, or since that is impossible, to reduce its potential to cause confusion and delay.
Recent research indicates that, while math anxiety doesn’t impact the working memory of subjects whose working memory was low from heredity, trauma, or idiopathic (unknown) factors, subjects with typical or high working memory respond to increased cortisol, the stress hormone, in very different ways. Subjects who display math anxiety lose access to much of their working memory, making them indistinguishable from people with a diagnosed working memory deficit! Clearly, subjects with math anxiety showed a maladaptive response to stress. On the other hand, increased cortisol did exactly what it was designed genetically to do in the other high-working-memory subjects: it increases their already high working memory. That’s an adaptive response to stress.
So far, we can say that math anxiety is a function of available working memory, and that working memory impacts all math higher than pretrained math facts. The logical result of this syllogism is that if you can free up working memory and reduce math facts to a matter of automatic recall, the student can spend whatever working memory is available on the higher-level questions.
Perhaps that is stating the obvious, but how do you do this? At www.mathnook.com, we have hundreds of games that can be played at the level of introduction to the level of mastery. If a student is guided, or finds through her own observation, to the right level and choice of games, she can take routine calculations right out of the working memory. The fact that this kind of practice produced measurable gains, especially when studied after six months (to give the central executive time to process the activity and to feed it back to both the visiospacial and phonological processing loops.
But what about the central executive? Isn’t it still going to throw a wrench into the process?
Short of electrical stimulation, there is no way of actually turning off the executive, but empirical evidence has proven that computer-based training similar to ours improves the interaction between the central executive and the phonological loop. Most of the research on which I base the following hypothesis comes from the study of athletes and musicians, but empirically I can suggest that the reason www.mathnook.com and other game sites with design based on hypnotic motion, competition, and scalable difficulty levels is that mathletes attain the psychological state called “Flow,” first documented by Csikszentmihalyi (1975) in his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state of peak enjoyment, energetic focus, and creative concentration experienced by people engaged in play, which has become the basis of a highly creative approach to living. In live descriptions of flow, the author suggests that the central executive is bypassed in a state of flow. The experience is “differentiating,” not “I am struggling with differentiation in Freshman Calculus. I’m doomed.”
While we aren’t aware of research that confirms that our games or any other Computer-Aided Instruction actually induces a state of flow, having observed many children glued to the computer playing these games, we’d bet on it!