We all know that students will sometimes become anxious when faced with a school test. Part of our role as teachers is to mitigate this anxiety. We should avoid talking about tests in a way that heightens their perceived importance and instead stress the role they play in learning. Personally, I often frame tests as ‘just checking in to see how well I’ve taught you’.
Whereas I accept that tests will sometimes be a source of pressure, that is different to the more specific claim made by Professor Jo Boaler and others that timed maths tests cause maths anxiety.
First, we need an understanding of what maths anxiety is. According to the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University, maths anxiety can be defined as:
“…a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in … ordinary life and academic situations. The severity of Mathematics Anxiety can range from a feeling of mild tension all the way to experiencing a strong fear of maths. The prevalence of extreme mathematics anxiety is estimated at between 2-6% at secondary school level in the UK, and other cases, whilst less severe, can still have a significant effect on the people who suffer with it.” [footnotes and references removed]
Notice that maths anxiety is not a one-off event, it is a medium- to long-term condition. To prove experimentally that timed tests cause maths anxiety, we would need to run a randomised controlled trial where one group of students is subjected to timed tests and another group is not, with a follow-up at a later stage to measure the prevalence of maths anxiety in the two groups. Although not impossible to do, it seems unlikely that someone would run such a test.
An alternative may be to look for a correlation between timed tests and maths anxiety out there in the real world. If we found such a correlation, we would then have to rule-out the possibility that having maths anxiety somehow causes students to be subjected to more timed tests or that some other factor may cause both. This would be a debatable question but ultimately it could be answered with a sufficient weight of evidence.
What is the evidence?
Boaler has written an article that is linked via her YouCubed website. Despite purporting to demonstrate that timed tests cause maths anxiety, the closest Boaler gets to direct evidence is to quote a study by Randall Engle as evidence that:
“…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.”
This does not provide evidence that timed tests cause maths anxiety, it provides evidence that test conditions can be stressful. Moreover, I have read Engle’s paper and I cannot see any mention of the study described by Boaler.
The rest of the research cited by Boaler relates to the fact that stress can impair performance on maths tasks. Again, I am prepared to accept this but it does not prove the central claim.
Victoria Simms went on a similar hunt for the evidence of a link between timed tests and maths anxiety when reviewing Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets:
“[Boaler] discusses a purported causal connection between drill practice and long-term mathematical anxiety, a claim for which she provides no evidence, beyond a reference to “Boaler (2014c)” (p38). After due investigation it appears that this reference is an online article which repeats the same claim, this time referencing “Boaler (2014)”, an article which does not appear in the reference list, or on Boaler’s website.
I am wondering whether “Boaler (2014)” is meant to be the same article that I looked at and that uses the Engle reference. Perhaps Jo Boaler would like to clear this up?
What other evidence is there that relates to maths anxiety?
The Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience in Education observes that although low mathematical achievement and maths anxiety are correlated, the direction of cause-and-effect is unclear. Does maths anxiety cause low achievement or does low achievement cause maths anxiety? Are they perhaps reciprocal, with low achievement causing maths anxiety which causes future low achievement and so on?
In this case, it is at least plausible to argue for precisely the opposite case to that made by Boaler. The purpose of timed tests, particularly for maths facts such as number bonds and times-tables, is often to ensure that students have these facts available automatically and don’t have to work them out. Why is this important? If you simply know that 7 x 8=56 then you don’t have to use your limited working memory resources to work this out and you can therefore deploy them on some other component of a maths problem. Coupled with the kinds of explicit teaching methods that research has shown to be effective, such approaches may actually be a far better way of tackling low achievement and therefore maths anxiety.
Update: In December 2018, American Educator published an article that led to the same citation dead-end as the one found by Victoria Simms. Subsequently, Jo Boaler has now updated the final post in that chain with the missing reference and this shows that she is indeed referring to the 2014 paper that I wrote about above. I did not pick this up at the time, but the specific claim is “For about one third of students the onset of timed testing is the beginning of math anxiety (Boaler, 2014)“. I cannot see anything in the 2014 paper that supports such a claim.