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Learning Numbers: Fears, Peers, Pain, Gain


Thu Oct 23 2014

Learning Numbers: Fears, Peers, Pain, Gain

Do you know someone with HMA? Talking to your doctor probably won’t help.

Research from the University of Chicago reveals that people with High Math Anxiety (HMAs) often suffer pain network activation in their brains when they anticipate solving math problems. In simpler terms, just thinking about doing math, literally, gives them a headache.


That anxiety, though, combined with other strategically introduced stressors, might be useful in helping professionals improve their business finance skills—when counter-balanced by other positive factors. In fact, an article in _Trends in Cognitive Sciences, “_Learning Under Stress, How Does It Work?,” summarizes how “several studies have shown that stress induced by and in close association with a learning task (i.e., stress that forms an intrinsic part of the situation to be remembered) facilitates consolidation of the event.”

To test this theory, our design team intentionally incorporated stress into a financial learning experience targeted for managers. The learning experience employed a basic structure familiar to most learners:

  • pre-test

  • self-paced pre-learning

  • peer learning

  • informal lecture

  • teach-back

  • practice with feedback in a real situation

  • follow-up practice in a real situation.

In the finance course, stress was coupled to learning in several ways. For instance, the pre-test—taken before the class—stirred up any latent HMA tendencies. During the traditional classroom time, the participants were asked to proactively fill any knowledge gaps by connecting with peers, which could induce social anxiety.

Likewise, course participants were informed that they had one hour with a partner to develop a five-minute presentation that they must deliver to less-experienced peers the same day. This task awakened many participants’ fear of public speaking, which is cited as the second ranking fear of American adults in a 2001 Gallup poll. In short, it’s a day they won’t forget.

Such stress by itself, though, can turn into distress if its energy isn’t channeled into a productive learning experience. We chose peer tutoring to address this issue. In his article, “Trends in Peer Learning,” Keith J. Topping states: “The research evidence is clear that both peer tutoring and cooperative learning can yield significant gains in academic achievement in the targeted curriculum area.”


Topping notes that peer tutoring must be implemented thoughtfully to get good results. He explains that effective tutoring is characterized by specific role-taking by the tutor and tutee, as well as a “high focus on curriculum content” and “clear procedures for interaction, in which participants receive generic and/or specific training” in pursuit of a specific shared goal or output to counterbalance the stressors. 

How does this balance play out in the finance class?

First, peers have sufficient time to get to know each other, so they can comfortably help each other with learning needs. In addition, they are specifically paired for teach-back and practice so that someone who is strong on the topic works with someone who is still developing skills. Finally, for the presentation portion, participants are given instruction, practice, and feedback on best-practice presentation skills during a prior learning experience, and they work in two-person teams to support each other.

So, although the structure of the class arouses anxiety, the peer and cooperative learning is positioned to ease and channel it into active learning experiences.

To date, we are encouraged by the results. The first iteration of the class achieved a 27 percent gain in financial knowledge, as measured by comparing assessments taken three months prior and three months after the learning experience. Perhaps some of the gain can be attributed to the application of pain and peers in the curriculum delivery. 


Additional reading

Lyons IM, Beilock SL (2012) When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLoS ONE 7(10): e48076. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048076. Retrieved at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0048076

Topping, Keith J. (2005) Trends in Peer Learning, Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 6, 2005. Retrieved at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01443410500345172#tabModule

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