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News from Mathnasium of Beach Blvd


Oct 1, 2015

Math Anxiety linked to timed tests

October 1, 2015

This test made me feel . .  .

Nervous because I am afraid I will not finish, or make a mistake.” - 4th grader

That I’m [terrible] at math.” - 2nd grader

These are select responses from a study conducted in asking your students about their feelings regarding a timed math test. This article covers how researchers have found that timed math tests increase anxiety resulting in memory recall blockages and, thus, poor performance by students of all levels. It contains many excerpts (included in quotes) from an article written by Jo Boaler, a professor of Mathematics Education from Stanford University.

“One of the initiatives (used) by many school districts . . .  is the use of timed tests to assess math facts and fluency. Teachers and administrators use these tests with the very best of intentions . . . (Boaler)”  But with the results of new studies and emerging neuroscience evidence, it appears that these policies need to be revisited.  “Evidence strongly suggests that timed tests cause the early onset of math anxiety for students across the achievement range (Boaler).”

“Occurring in students from an early age, math anxiety and its effects are exacerbated over time, leading to low achievement, math avoidance, and negative experiences of math throughout life. Educators have witnessed the impact of math anxiety for decades, but only in recent years have timed math tests been shown to be one cause of the early onset of math anxiety. Indeed, researchers now know that students experience stress on timed tests that they do not experience even when working on the same math questions in untimed conditions. (Boaler)”

“In a recent study of 150 first and second graders, researchers measured students’ levels of math anxiety, finding that children as young as first grade experienced it and that levels of math anxiety did not correlate with grade level, reading level, or parental income. Other researchers analyzed brain-imaging data from . . . seven- to nine-year old children while they worked on addition and subtraction problems and found that those students who ‘felt panicky’ about math had increased activity in brain regions associated with fear. When those areas were active, decreased activity took place in the brain regions that are involved in problem solving. (Boaler)”

“(Reseachers) conducted brain scans to study the ways in which anxiety affects individuals, showing that children compute with math facts—such as those required in timed tests—by recalling information that is held in the working memory. The more working memory an individual holds, the greater potential he or she has for academic success. (The study) found that when people are stressed, the pressure blocks their working memory and facts with which people are familiar cannot be recalled. Readers may recognize this process from any stressful or public situation when they have had to work with familiar math but found that their ‘mind has gone blank.’ This is the impact of stress blocking the working memory. Importantly, (the study) found that math anxiety influences those with high rather than low amounts of working memory—precisely those students who have the greatest potential to take mathematics to high levels. When students who experience stress in timed conditions find that they cannot access their working memory, they underachieve, which causes them to question their math ability and, in many cases, develop further stress and anxiety. (Boaler)”

“The impact of taking a timed test is sufficiently powerful that students also frequently come to believe that memorizing math facts is the most important part of mathematics—really the essence of math. Unfortunately, many students across the United States come to believe that fast students are those who have the most potential, meaning that many slower but deep thinkers turn away from math. The hallmark of high-level mathematical thinking . . . is working in depth, not working at speed. (Boaler)”

Much of emphasis of timed tests comes from the Common Core standard of automaticity. This is defined as ‘the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit.’ At Mathnasium, we believe that there are much better ways of developing automaticity in math –primarily focusing on number sense and numerical fluency in helping students develop constructs that can be relied upon to assist them in solving problems. Learning the flexibility of numbers in decomposing and regrouping them is so critical to young children that it is known to separate high achievers from low achievers in mathematics.

Number sense starts with addition and subtraction strategies for younger children in teaching them to add numbers with sums above 10 by decomposing numbers.  For example, 8+7 is the same as 8 +2+5 (breaking up the 7 to 2+5 creating a compliment to the 8 for a group of 10). This teaches young children at a young age the numbers can be manipulated in a way to help them reach results. At an older age, students can use these same skills in ‘higher math’ eventually applying this concept of wholes and their parts to problem solving. A lot of these skills can be developed by talking to students about math problems and not simply asking them to solve with pencil and paper.

Using these ideas, ask a student to mentally solve a problem such as 12x15 encouraging them to come up with different ways to solve it. These solutions (shown below) help students grasp the concept of numerical fluency which is far more important that memorization in the learning process.

Samples of math problem solving that alleviate math anxiety

A young math student once described math class to his mom by stating: ‘It’s too much answer time and not enough learning time.’ “The best mathematical learning environments are those in which students are encouraged to appreciate the beauty and diversity of math, learning new ideas without pressure or anxiety. Many students turn away from math in their early years because they feel that their creativity and open thinking close down as they are forced to follow standard rules and procedures. Mathematics is a multi-dimensional subject that should be introduced in the early years through a flexible, visual, and creative approach that values students’ thinking at all times. (Boaler)" At Mathnasium, we are strong believers that giving students number sense and numerical fluency is the best way (much better than timed tests) to create a solid math foundation that will last their entire lives.