The Research Is In

A Surprising Way to Reduce Math Stress

A new study finds that a simple writing exercise can improve students’ math outcomes.

August 4, 2017

Eight in 10 teenagers identify school as a primary source of stress, and one in 10 say they’ve received lower grades because of stress. When it comes to math, the problem may be worse—many students experience math anxiety, low self-confidence, or overwhelming amounts of academic pressure, which can disrupt learning, leading to lower grades and test scores. Teachers try out a lot of ideas to reduce math stress, and here’s a surprising one: Have students write about their personal values. That’s the finding from a new study published in PLOS One.

Researchers followed 221 undergraduate psychology students taking a challenging statistics course. At the beginning of the course, students were asked to reflect on what they value in life (such as relationships with family/friends, spiritual/religious values, or science/pursuit of knowledge) and to rank those values by personal importance. Students were then randomly split into two groups: One group wrote for 15 minutes about why their top values had personal meaning; the second group spent that time writing about how their least important values could be meaningful to others. They repeated the writing activity just before the first midterm.

When researchers compared the two groups at the end of the course, they saw surprising differences. Students who wrote about their least important values gained little to no benefit from the activity. Students who wrote about their most important values, however, earned higher grades in the course on average and also experienced small gains in numeracy (the ability to apply math concepts) and mathematical reasoning ability.

Interestingly, these students also scored higher on a financial literacy test and engaged in fewer risky behaviors related to health (such as smoking) throughout the course. And a follow-up study two years later found that these students had taken more math courses than their peers.

This seems too good to be true. So how does it work?

By writing about their values, the first group focused on long-term goals instead of immediate pressures, which the study authors say “may increase or protect beliefs in numeric ability and attitudes towards numbers,” helping to prevent many of the negative effects stress has on learning.

Although this study looked at college students, it’s part of a growing body of research showing that this and similar strategies, known as wise psychological interventions, have an outsized impact on students of all ages. Such interventions focus not on improving academic skills or knowledge, but on changing students’ mindsets about learning—combating negative feelings, or increasing a sense of belonging, or reframing failure as an opportunity for improvement.

The takeaway: When students are stressed out, giving them more academic work can backfire. You may want to try a psychological approach—changing their mindset toward learning can be a simple but powerful way to build self-confidence and boost performance.

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Mental Health
  • Math

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