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Comfort, stress and learning in math classes

By Murray Bourne, 05 Dec 2006

"Greater comfort doesn't result in better education" (article no longer available), by Karen Utley of the Statesman Journal in Oregon, pushes the line that learning should involve some stress.

Researchers asked students to rate the pleasure factor of their math classes and compared the kids' responses with their standardized test scores. They discovered that students who characterized their math experiences as "scary" or "unpleasant" were performing better on the exams than those who described their classes as happy and comfortable.

She goes on to say:

Schools, like parents, have succumbed to the wishful optimism of advertising that promises to make learning -- through the latest method or game or computerized gadget -- convenient, pleasurable, comfortable and stress-free.

I am in two minds on this issue. There are thousands of students who end up very miserable in mathematics classes. Blame it on bad curriculum, bad teaching, bad scheduling, bad societal support, whatever. But we must cater for these stressed out students and try to reduce their hatred of mathematics.

On the other hand, we know from research that a reasonable amount of stress is important for effective learning. (See my earlier article, Memory, stress, fish and sleep.) Some stress is important for everything in life, really. After all, getting up in the morning is most often about relieving hunger or bladder stress.

But back to Utley's article, I agree with her when she says:

Conversely, [students are] inspired to achievement when schools and parents insist on consistent effort and rigorous scholarship, because high expectations reassure students by saying, "We know it's hard -- but we know you can do it."

Yes, but let's not make it hard because we can do it, and let's not make it stressful because that's how we like to learn. One thing I think we should do is talk more with students about math stress and help them decide where on the stress curve they should aim for.

See the 6 Comments below.

6 Comments on “Comfort, stress and learning in math classes”

  1. John Atkins says:

    Whether tragic events touch your family personally or are brought into your home via newspapers and television, you can help children cope with the anxiety that violence, death, and disasters can cause.

    Listening and talking to children about their concerns can reassure them that they will be safe. Start by encouraging them to discuss how they have been affected by what is happening around them. Even young children may have specific questions about tragedies. Children react to stress at their own developmental level.

    The Caring for Every Child's Mental Health Campaign offers these pointers for parents and other caregivers:

    * Encourage children to ask questions. Listen to what they say. Provide comfort and assurance that address their specific fears. It's okay to admit you can't answer all of their questions.
    * Talk on their level. Communicate with your children in a way they can understand. Don't get too technical or complicated.
    * Find out what frightens them. Encourage your children to talk about fears they may have. They may worry that someone will harm them at school or that someone will try to hurt you.
    * Focus on the positive. Reinforce the fact that most people are kind and caring. Remind your child of the heroic actions taken by ordinary people to help victims of tragedy.
    * Pay attention. Your children's play and drawings may give you a glimpse into their questions or concerns. Ask them to tell you what is going on in the game or the picture. It's an opportunity to clarify any misconceptions, answer questions, and give reassurance.
    * Develop a plan. Establish a family emergency plan for the future, such as a meeting place where everyone should gather if something unexpected happens in your family or neighborhood. It can help you and your children feel safer.

    If you are concerned about your child's reaction to stress or trauma, call your physician or a community mental health center.

  2. james elsey says:

    I am doing another maths degree with the OU @ age 75. The stress article is most illuminating. Cut-off dates, assignments and examinations seem to keep me sharp so to speak. Computer difficulties with maths software can stress me to the point of despondency - although when you get them working smoothly they induce a harmless elation. My printers
    can take me through the whole spectrum of emotions.
    Keep the newsletter going it has given me a whole range of
    extremely useful contacts.

  3. Murray says:

    Hi James and good to hear from you again. It's great that you are doing Open University courses.

    What math software are you using?

  4. james elsey says:

    I have just completed mst 209 using Mathcad. Now I am
    registered to do M248 using Minitab. Thanks for your enquiry. Jim Elsey.

  5. pallavi says:

    its interesting fact that eustress activates learning.
    Being a teacher of Mathemetics I am interested in undertaking research in effect of constructivism on students' stress and achievement. Please post me related articles if any available.

  6. Murray says:

    Hi Palavi. This Google search turns up plenty of interesting possibilities. Good luck with it!

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