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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.

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