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Keep Your Working Memory Available

The research of Sian Beilock, University of Chicago psychologist, provides a new take on why math anxiety can lead to poor problem-solving performance.

Beilock’s argument is simple: research suggests that working memory (or short term memory) helps each person maintain small chunks of information at one time...perhaps the information necessary to solve a given mathematical problem. But, Beilock claims that worrying about a situation (e.g. solving the problem in front of classmates) consumes the working memory necessary for figuring out the math problem. The result is not only math anxiety, but also an unsolved problem!

Beilock also argues that the type of working memory involved in solving arithmetic problems is affected by the presentation of the problems. For horizontal expressions, more working memory resources related to language are used (solvers usually maintain problem steps by repeating them in their head)...while for vertical expressions, visuo-spatial (or where things are located) resources of working memory are used.

Again with an unusual twist, Beilock hypothesized that stereotype-induced stress (i.e. reminding female students of the stereotype that “girls can’t do math”) would result in different results for solving vertical versus horizontal math problems. And the findings: female students exposed to the negative stereotype performed more poorly...but only on the horizontal problems. Beilock concludes that "the stereotype creates an inner monologue of worries, which relies heavily on verbal working memory. Thus, there is insufficient verbal working memory available to solve the horizontal math problems."

Other research has suggested a positive correlation between one's working memory capacity and subsequent problem-solving performance. To further explore this, Beilock compared math test scores of individuals with either large or small working memory capacities. The subjects took a math test in either a high pressure situation or low pressure situation. And the result: subjects with higher working memory levels performed very poorly during the high pressure testing situation (i.e. the greater the capacity for success, the more likely one would “choke under pressure”).

How can a mathematics teacher use this research: Be aware and supportive of individuals with higher levels of working memory as they tend to have superior computational capacity, resulting in high performance in classroom situations. But, Beilock argues, “if these resources are compromised, for example, by worries about the situation and its consequences, high working memory individuals’ advantage disappears."

Unfortunately, Beilock has no suggestions for how teachers can best work with students who have low capacities of working memory. Given the research, it seems positive support is not enough...so what to do?

Source: ScienceDaily, December 10, 2008