School & District Management

Students With Math-Anxious Parents May Benefit From Free App

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 12, 2015 3 min read
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This post originally appeared on the Inside School Research blog.

There’s an almost unlimited supply of public service sites to help parents to talk to their kids about the tough subjects, like drugs or sex. But where’s the support for the really tough stuff to talk about—like algebra?

In the latest in a series of studies on how adult anxieties and stereotypes affect students’ math performance, University of Chicago researchers found that students whose families used a free tablet app to work through math-related puzzles and stories each week had significantly more growth in math learning by the end of the year, particularly if their families were uncomfortable with the subject.

In the randomized controlled trial, University of Chicago psychologists Talia Berkowitz, Sian Beilock, Susan Levine and others followed 587 1st graders and their families at 22 Chicago-area schools. The families were randomly assigned to use an iPad with either a reading-related app or a version of Bedtime Math, a free app which provides story-like math word problems for parents to read with their children. The children were tested in math at the beginning and end of the school year.

Notably, the students of parents who admitted dreading math at the beginning of the year showed the strongest growth from using the app at least once a week. That’s important, since this study and prior research has shown parents who are highly anxious about math have children who show less growth in the subject and who are more likely to become fearful of the subject themselves.

Students who used the math app showed higher growth over the school year, as the chart below shows. (One is equal to nine months, or one school-year’s worth of growth.)

Notably, students from math-anxious families who used the app at least once a week closed that initial gap with students from families comfortable with math. Interestingly, families more comfortable with math had to use the app at least twice a week to see a benefit from it. A control group of students who used the reading app showed no benefit to math.

Math in Daily Routines

“Parent talk around math is really beneficial to learning,” Beilock said. “Our hunch is that these interactions around the app likely promote interactions outside of the app that are maybe more math-rich in content. We cut the phone line between the parents’ anxiety and the kids’ math learning across the school year.”

If true, that might also help explain why the parents more comfortable with math had students who initially benefitted less from the app, Beilock said. Those families were more likely to already be working math into daily routines: Asking children to measure ingredients to make dinner, for example, or calculate the minutes until bedtime. Math-anxious parents, by contrast, “were probably going from none to some” math conversations, Beilock said.

The researchers are continuing to track the students and their families, to determine how parent-child talk about math changes, and whether initially anxious parents grow more comfortable with math after working with their students over time.

The study still leaves a lot of questions on just how parents are contributing to their students’ math performance, and what role supportive tools like the math app play in that.

“Often we think of math as being the purview of schooling and not so much at home,” said Beilock, author of the 2011 book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. “I think both teachers and parents matter. Hope this paper conveys that what parents think about math and how they talk to their kids about it is very important.”

Chart: Students of math-anxious parents showed significantly fewer months of math growth over the school year than students of parents comfortable in the subject, a Science study found. However, students who used a tablet-based math app at least once a week with their parents closed that initial gap. One is equal to nine months, or a full school year’s worth of growth in math.

Source: Sian Beilock, University of Chicago; Science.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.