Subject Matter Anxieties (page 2)
Most studies on achievement anxiety do not differentiate by subject matter. But some people develop anxiety about performance in specific subject areas or with regard to particular skills. They may be comfortable in most academic contexts, but have great difficulty performing in one domain. Two domains that have been studied are mathematics and writing.
Anxious Alma is in good company. Mathematics anxiety, or "mathophobia," is widespread. College students report much more anxiety about mathematics than they do about English, social science (Everson, Tobias, Hartman, & Gourgey, 1993), or even writing (Sapp, Farrell, & Durand, 1995). It is estimated that about one-third of college students suffer from some level of mathematics anxiety (Anton & Klisch, 1995; see Mitchell & Collins, 1991).
A commonly used measure of mathematics anxiety is the Mathematics Anxiety Scale (MAS). The scale includes 10 items and studies of middle school, high school, and college students suggest that it taps the same two dimensions of anxiety often found in more general test anxiety measures—a general sense of worry about mathematics and negative feelings and emotional reactions (Pajares & Urdan, 1996).
Mathematics does not generate as much anxiety in young children as in older children and adults. In Goodlad's (1984) study of over 17,000 young students, mathematics was rated about the same as reading in a list of "liked" subjects (after art and physical education). In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, nine-year-olds ranked mathematics as their best-liked subject; thirteen-year-olds ranked it second best, but in contrast to the younger children, seventeen-year-olds claimed that mathematics was their least liked subject (Carrpenter, Corbitt, Kepner, Lindquist, & Reys, 1981). Significant declines in positive attitudes toward mathematics have also been shown over the adolescent years (Wigfield, Eccles, Mac Iver, Reuman, & Midgley, 1991; Wigfield & Eccles, 1994). Apparently children are not born with mathematics anxiety. Rather, negative attitudes toward mathematics develop over time, especially during adolescence.
Why does mathematics, in particular, cause so much anxiety in older students and adults? One can only speculate. Lazarus (1975) points out that mathematics anxiety has a "...peculiar social acceptability. Persons otherwise proud of their educational attainments shamelessly confess to being 'no good at math'" (p. 281; see also Sapp, 1999).
The way mathematics is usually taught may also explain why mathematics anxiety is common. Lazarus (1975) suggests that the cumulative nature of mathematics curricula is one explanation; if you fail to understand one operation, you are often unable to learn anything taught beyond that operation.
From observations of mathematics and social studies classes, Stodolsky (1985) proposed that mathematics instruction fostered in students the belief that mathematics is something that is learned from an authority, not figured out on one's own. She found that mathematics classes were characterized by (1) a recitation and seatwork pattern of instruction; (2) a reliance on teacher presentation of new concepts or procedures; (3) textbook-centered instruction; (4) textbooks that lacked developmental or instructional material for concept development; (5) a lack of manipulatives; and (6) a lack of social support or small-group work. The instructional format, the types of behavior expected from students, and the materials used were also more similar from day to day in mathematics than in social studies classes. This lack of variety may contribute to anxiety because students who do not do well in the instructional format used in mathematics are not given opportunities to succeed using alternative formats. Later studies by Stodolsky also suggest that mathematics teachers see their subject area as more sequential and static than teachers of other subjects (Stodolsky & Grossman, 1995; see also Wolters & Pintrich, 1998). Sapp (1999) speculates that mathematics teaching often focuses on memorization of procedures, which doesn't prepare students for more conceptual, advanced mathematics. Thus, they feel ill-prepared and become anxious when rote procedures are no longer sufficient.
Stodolsky (1985) also suggests that mathematics is an area in which ability, in the sense of a stable trait, is believed to play a dominant role in performance-either one has the ability or one does not. And if one lacks ability in mathematics, nothing can be done about it. By contrast, people generally believe that performance in other subjects, like reading or social studies, can be improved with practice and effort; they hold an "incremental" theory of ability.
There is consistent evidence that females suffer more from mathematics anxiety than do males (Hembree, 1990; Pajares & Urdan, 1996; Randhawa, 1994; Wigfield & Meece, 1988). Some researchers have proposed that mathematics anxiety contributes to observed gender differences in mathematics achievement and course enrollment, but the one study that actually assessed anxiety and enrollment plans found no relationship (Meece, Wigfield, & Eccles, 1990).
There is little agreement on the reasons for such gender differences. Ability differences, socialization differences, differences in the level of self-confidence, and the number of mathematics courses taken have all been proposed as explanations. Whatever the reasons for the frequency and intensity of mathematics anxiety, particularly among females, it is a problem that warrants special attention by educational researchers and practitioners.
The good news is that interventions to reduce math anxiety have been successful. Sgoutas-Emch and Johnson (1998) found that writing in a journal about frustrations and feelings reduced college students' anxiety in a statistics course.
Perhaps everyone, at one time in their lives, experiences a certain amount of panic facing a blank piece of paper or computer screen, especially if the due date for a written product—a paper for a class or a report for work—is close at hand. "Writer's block" is so debilitating for some that they avoid courses and professions that require writing. (See Daly & Miller, 1975b; Daly, Vangelisti, & Witte, 1988; Rose, 1985; Selfe, 1985.)
Although psychoanalytic explanations have been suggested (Barwick, 1995; Grundy, 1993), the few studies that have been done suggest that writing anxiety reflects some of the same dynamics that explain general achievement anxiety. Writing anxiety, like general achievement anxiety, is associated with relatively low expectations for success as well as lower writing quality (Daly, 1985; Pajares & Valiante, 1997). Rose's (1985) research on writer's block makes it very clear that the causes are usually multifaceted, and that although they may have their roots in early familial experiences, later and current experiences in writing contexts are also important.
Researchers have developed a measure of writing anxiety (Daly & Miller, 1975a), which has been shown to be more strongly associated with writing performance than a more general measure of achievement anxiety (Richmond & Dickson-Markman, 1985). Studies using the measure have found some gender differences, with females showing somewhat less writing anxiety than males. People high in writing anxiety were also high on reading anxiety and anxiety about public speaking and interpersonal communication, but relatively low on math anxiety (Daly, 1985).
Research has also examined associations between teachers' feelings about writing and their teaching strategies. Studies have found, for example, that highly apprehensive female teachers assign fewer writing assignments and are more likely to be concerned with issues of form and usage and less likely to emphasize personal or creative expression and effort than less apprehensive teachers (see Daly, 1985; Daly et al., 1988). Associations between teachers' own anxiety about writing and their teaching methods were strongest in upper elementary school, when many important writing skills are supposed to be taught.
Studies of interventions find that simply taking writing courses decreases writing anxiety, at least temporarily (Basile, 1982; Fox, 1980). Zimmerman and Silverman (1982) report that the writing apprehension of fifth-grade students could be reduced by emphasizing prewriting activities, expressive writing, and positive evaluation (see Daly, 1985; Schweiker-Marra & Marra, 2000).
The instructional context can exacerbate concerns about competencies that feed anxiety, and they contribute to trait anxiety both over time and collectively. One study found that high school students who were relatively high in writing anxiety reported having experienced more criticism for their writing and less encouragement and support, and they reported seeking help for writing problems less than students low on writing anxiety (Daly, 1985).
Daly (1985) proposes that writing anxiety will be greatest under the following circumstances:
- evaluation is salient
- the task is ambiguous
- the writer feels conspicuous
- task difficulty is perceived to be high
- the writer feels lacking in prior experience relevant to the task
- the task is personally salient
- the setting or task is novel
- the writer perceives the audience as uninterested but evaluative
Teachers may be able to reduce writing anxiety by minimizing students' concerns about evaluation, making assignments and criteria for grading clear, and making sure that students have the prior experience and familiarity they need to complete the writing task. Writing tasks, like all tasks, should be challenging but not so difficult or different from what students have experienced in the past as to provoke a sense of incompetence or low expectations for success. A genuine and supportive audience (e.g., classmates, parents) might also help.
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