SRCD 2019 Biennial Conference
March 21-23, 2019
Title: Anxiety and Children’s Mathematical Learning: Testing an Expressive Writing Intervention
Session: Relational Learning in Real-World Contexts: Cognitive, Educational, and Socio-Cultural Factors
Authors: Almaz Mesghina, Lindsey Richland
Abstract: Anxiety reduces working memory (WM) resources, which can harm students’ mathematics performance (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001; Beilock, 2008). Expressive writing (EW), or writing about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings, may help to overcome these effects of anxiety. EW prior to a test can improve adults’ and adolescents’ performance by reducing worry and freeing up WM for task-relevant processing (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). However, few studies have examined EW with children, and none to date have examined EW in learning contexts. Research findings with adults may not apply to children: children are still developing emotion regulation skills required for EW (Fivush et al., 2007), and because they tend to ruminate and write more expressively than males, young females in particular may be most impacted by EW. Moreover, mathematical instruction that promotes deeper learning (i.e., relational reasoning between problem-solving strategies) places large demands on WM (Richland et al., 2016). Consequently, compared to mathematics testing, anxiety and/or the effects of EW may be larger during relational reasoning lessons. The current study sought to examine whether EW reduces children’s anxiety and improves their ability to learn from a mathematics lesson.
297 fifth- and sixth-graders were randomly assigned within-classroom to either expressively or non-expressively write for 5 minutes prior to a video lesson on ratio. Students in the expressive condition wrote about the deepest thoughts and feelings they had about the upcoming lesson and test (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). Students in the non-expressive condition copied down an emotionally-neutral paragraph from the introduction of the lesson. All students then watched the same 30-minute ratio lesson, during which a teacher compares and contrasts between a correct strategy (least common multiple) and common misconception (subtraction) to solve ratio problems. Students completed the same assessment at post-test (immediately following lesson) and pre-test (3-4 days prior) that assesses procedural and conceptual understanding of ratio (Begolli & Richland, 2016). After the post-test, students reported their anxiety experienced during the lesson. One week later, students completed a measure of WM.
Students’ average test scores at both assessment timepoints are reported in Table 1. Frequency of anxious ideation was negatively related to gains in procedural understanding. Compared to writing about non-emotional content, EW was related to greater anxious ideation for all students, though the effect was stronger for females. Regression analyses reveal that females’ procedural learning was negatively impacted by EW. Specifically, while WM was positively related to females’ gains when non-expressively writing, WM no longer predicted gains for those who expressively wrote, suggesting that emotional disclosure may have induced worries that co-opted WM resources required for reasoning (Figure 1). Males’ learning was unrelated to EW.
Counter to findings with adult samples, our findings suggest that EW interventions prior to a lesson may impede, not promote, students’ relational reasoning in mathematics contexts, particularly for females. Given that mathematics concepts build on themselves, initial differences in learning may widen over time; therefore, this work argues for more careful investigation of the role of emotional disclosure on children’s learning.