President Sian Leah Beilock is a nationally recognized cognitive scientist who has conducted extensive research on math anxiety, with a specific focus on women and girls. At TedMed 2017, she spoke about the origins of her passion for cognitive science—an important soccer match gone awry—and highlighted her research on improving performance and reducing math anxiety. Brain scans, she said, have shown neural pain responses similar to physical pain in some who are particularly math-phobic, and the prefrontal cortex, which usually aids in focusing on a task, can “overload” in stressful situations and hyperfocus on extraneous details. Beilock offered practical in-the-moment tips for refocusing, such as writing in a journal or singing a song, and stressed the need for parents and teachers to act as good role models, engaging with children in fun learning activities to improve their experiences with math. She also participated in a Q&A about the talk.
Groundbreaking Research Published During First Year as President
During her first year as president, Beilock published several academic papers that further our understanding of how being anxious about math can affect how people learn and perform in math and science. Her work, which includes research collaborations with Barnard alumnae, provides knowledge about how to succeed when it matters most. Moreover, through her mentorship of female PhD students (the first authors on her papers are often her former students), Beilock helps promote the next generation of outstanding women in science.
How the Brain Does Math
In the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Beilock’s team looked at what happens in the brain when people do math. They were especially interested in whether people who have anxiety about math solve even the simplest problems (e.g., 5 + 3 = 8) differently from people who don’t have anxiety. Math anxiety is a common phenomenon. In fact, an estimated 31 percent of 15-year-old students (from countries who are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) report getting very nervous when solving math problems.
Previously, it was thought that people who are math-anxious struggle only with difficult math problems, not simple ones. But Beilock and her team found that even when doing simple math, the brains of people who are anxious about math look different from those who do not experience anxiety. People who were higher versus lower in math anxiety showed different patterns of neural activity related to math performance, specifically in the fronto-parietal attentional network underlying our ability to focus on the task at hand. Even for simple arithmetic problems typically mastered in early elementary school, brain activity can differ depending on one's math anxiety.
In short, when people don’t have math anxiety, math performance is fluent and easy. When people do have math anxiety, it can be a struggle for them to solve even simple problems. This suggests that we need to look at how children and adults with anxiety about math approach all types of math, not just more difficult math problems.
Positive Attitudes and Achievement in School
In the Journal of Cognition and Development, Beilock co-authored an article showing the importance of positive attitudes about math and how these attitudes relate to strong math achievement in school. Elizabeth A. Gunderson, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Temple University and the first author of this article, "Reciprocal Relations Among Motivational Frameworks, Math Anxiety, and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School," worked with Beilock at the University of Chicago.
Drawing from the motivational frameworks coined by Carol Dweck '67, one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation and the 2017 Convocation speaker, Beilock and her research team looked at first and second grade students, measuring their math attitudes, anxiety, and achievement. The researchers showed that math attitudes and anxiety predict math achievement, which in turn predicts attitudes and anxiety. In effect, there is a "vicious or virtuous cycle" suggesting that if you want to improve children's math performance you not only need to focus on what they learn in school, but their attitudes and anxieties as well. The research team concludes that improving math attitudes may set children onto a long-lasting, positive trajectory in math.
The Roots of Anxiety
In the journal Sex Roles, Beilock and her graduate student, Juliane Hertz, credit psychologist Janet Taylor Spence (1923-2015) for laying the foundation for work in the area of math anxiety and performance. Spence did leading work establishing that anxiety was related to poor performance. Beilock—winner of the Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions in 2011 from the Association for Psychological Science—examines the ways that negative emotions specific to math can hinder math performance and some of the promising ways to help reduce math anxiety in children and adults.
For example, when parents are worried and anxious about math, they can transmit this anxiety to their children, and the end result is that their kids perform worse in math. However, an app called Bedtime Math, which helps parents and kids interact around math in fun and engaging ways, can help boost the math scores and attitudes of kids whose parents who are most math-anxious.
How Parents and Teachers Can Help (and Hinder) Kids' Success in Math
We often think about math as something that happens in the classroom, not in the home, but Beilock shows that parents can have a big effect on their children's math performance simply by talking about math. Parents should be encouraged to talk with their children about math, communicating the expectation that children will perform well through hard work and effort.
Beilock reviewed the above-mentioned research in The Psychologist, a publication of the British Psychological Society, with Barnard alumna Talia L. Berkowitz '10. Beilock worked with first author Berkowitz during her doctoral studies at the University of Chicago; Berkowitz also has published with Koleen McCrink, assistant professor of psychology. Beilock and co-principal investigator Susan C. Levine, at the University of Chicago, along with their research team, address the fact that parents are often unsure what role they should play in supporting their child's academic development. How much help should they give, and what kind? The researchers conclude that parents should not feel alone as they search for ways to become more participatory. Parents should be encouraged to talk to their children with the expectation that their children will perform well in school, and teachers can facilitate this process by providing parents with suggestions for the best ways to talk to children about learning.
Beilock's research shows that while there is still much to explore about the relationship between math anxiety and math performance, we know there are methods for teachers and parents both to influence children's math attitudes, anxiety, and performance so that everyone has the potential to achieve their best.
Prior to joining Barnard, Beilock served as the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology and as a member of the Committee on Education, and ran the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago, leading a team that studies the mechanisms by which performance breaks down under high-stress conditions. The author of Choke and How the Body Knows Its Mind, she has published hundreds of papers showing that performance anxiety can be exacerbated or alleviated by teachers, parents, and peers. She has explored the brain and body factors that influence learning and performance and how simple psychological strategies can ensure success in high-stakes situations ranging from test-taking and public speaking to athletics. Beilock continues her research in this area.