# Brain imaging study finds teaching anxious math students to reframe their anxieties improves performance

New research suggests that a cognitive reassessment strategy can help people with math anxiety regulate their negative emotions around math. The study found neural evidence that this reassessment allows for increased activity in areas of the brain responsible for arithmetic – paving the way for improved math performance. The results were published in *Cognitive and affective social neuroscience.*

Math anxiety, as the term suggests, is characterized by feelings of distress or fear that arise when faced with math tasks. Such anxiety can follow a person throughout their life, not only affecting math performance in school, but interfering with everyday life.

Study authors Rachel G. Pizzie and her team wanted to explore an intervention strategy that could mitigate the effects of mathematical anxiety by targeting its emotional component. The strategy they proposed focused on cognitive reassessment – the practice of reframing an emotional situation before it had a chance to lend its emotional impact. They proposed that limiting the affective component of mathematical anxiety should release cognitive resources which can then be assigned to mathematical tasks.

“I’m ultimately interested in how emotions interact with learning and thinking. In this case, studying mathematical anxiety allows us to explore how anxiety and negative emotions associated with mathematics interfere with or hinder our ability to tackle mathematics or perform mathematical calculations, ”explained Pizzie, professor. deputy and director of the cognitive and affective neuroscience laboratory (CAN) at Gallaudet University.

“These emotional processes can have big consequences, as we find that people with math anxiety are deterred from math courses and careers that involve quantitative skills, such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM ). Ultimately, I am interested in understanding how these emotional processes work in the context of education, so that we can create better intervention methods to help individuals have a more positive experience and reduce the impact of these negative emotions on performance.

Pizzie and his colleagues had a sample of 74 students aged 13 to 22 participating in a lab experiment. Students exhibited varying levels of mathematical anxiety, as measured by a questionnaire at the end of the study. Although strapped to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, the subjects underwent a series of tests where they were faced with math or word analogy problems.

“In this fMRI study, we explored how cognitive reassessment, an emotion regulation technique that involves rethinking or reframing an emotional experience, can be used in the context of math for those with increased math anxiety,” Pizzie told PsyPost. “Since people with math anxiety experience heightened negative emotions while doing math calculations, we hypothesized that using a technique to help regulate this negative emotion might be of benefit to them.”

At the start of the study, students were trained in a cognitive reassessment strategy that taught them to reframe the problem (for example, by imagining themselves explaining it to a friend) or reframing their stress response to the problem. (for example, remembering that anxiety can be helpful and potentially improve their focus on the problem). For each block of six essays, students were to either use a reassessment strategy or simply approach the tasks as they normally would.

“In order to ‘re-evaluate’ a math problem, we asked participants to imagine completing the math problem in a low-stakes setting, such as explaining the problem to a friend or imagining that stress or anxiety that they might feel are helping them meet the challenge of solving the problem, ”said Pizzie.

As expected, the researchers found that students with higher math anxiety performed worse on math problems than those with low math anxiety. However, the cognitive reassessment strategy appears to reduce the performance differences between the two groups. Anxious math students performed better on math problems when they used a reframing strategy, compared to when they approached the problems as they normally would.

In addition, the reassessment strategy appears to be the most effective among the most anxious in math. The higher the students’ mathematical anxiety, the more their accuracy improved in re-evaluation tests compared to tests without re-evaluation. Students with greater mathematical anxiety also tended to rate their experience less negatively in reassessment trials.

Pizzie and his colleagues also found neural evidence that could explain why reassessment strategies improved students’ math performance. First, students using the reassessment strategy while solving math problems showed a pattern of activity within a network of brain areas that are typically activated upon reframing emotional stimuli. This suggests that students were able to effectively apply cognitive reassessment to math tasks.

Additionally, in math anxiety students, improvements in math performance attributed to the reassessment strategy were related to increased activity in parts of the brain involved in arithmetic, particularly the bilateral intraparietal sulcus (IPS). This finding suggests that the reassessment strategy improved the performance of anxious math students by stimulating the engagement of brain regions involved in arithmetic.

“The results show that for people with the most math anxiety using a reassessment technique, more precise math performance was also associated with increased brain activity in neural regions of the brain associated with arithmetic processing,” Pizzie told PsyPost.

“Overall, this result demonstrates that people with high math anxiety who implement this reassessment technique show an improvement in mathematical accuracy which corresponds to an increase in brain activity in regions associated with mathematical calculations, which which suggests that this is a promising technique for helping people with high math anxiety improve. their performance and decrease their negative experience. “

But the study – like all research – comes with a few caveats.

“More research needs to be done to address how emotion regulation techniques such as reassessment could be used in math learning, or in ‘real’ contexts like math classrooms,” explained Pizzie. “In this study, all of our participants completed the task in an fMRI scanner, and we used a task that all of our participants already knew how to do: the arithmetic problems of the order of operations. Using a technique like reassessment can be very different when people are less familiar with the material or are actively engaged in the learning process.

“Additionally, people who experience math anxiety can represent a diverse set of training and learning experiences,” added Pizzie. “While we believe reassessment is a flexible technique that can be implemented in a wide variety of contexts, this study did not examine how these different experiences and real-life contexts might affect the type of results we see in this. study.”

Nonetheless, the authors conclude that cognitive reassessment holds promise as an intervention strategy to improve mathematical performance in people with mathematical anxiety.

“While we don’t necessarily think of ‘math’ to be particularly ’emotional’, math anxiety provides an important way to study emotions and how they occur in a real context,” said Pizzie. “Previous studies using cognitive reassessment have primarily focused on more traditional affective or emotional stimuli, such as emotional movies, pictures, and other affective experiences.”

“However, when we look at participants’ brain activity when they use cognitive reassessment while doing mathematical calculations, we also see increased brain activity in the same networks of brain regions that are used to reassess traditional negative stimuli. In other words, even as participants reassess math instead of negative images, we still see increased activity in the same networks of brain regions that process the regulation of negative affect using reassessment.

The study, “Neural evidence for cognitive reassessment as a strategy to mitigate the effects of mathematical anxietyWritten by Rachel G. Pizzie, Cassidy L. McDermott, Tyler G. Salem and David JM Kraemer.