Under the Hood

Math Performance Anxiety? Good Posture Could Help, Study Suggests

We know that good posture is beneficial for your bones and muscles — but could it also help boost your math grades?  

Researchers at San Francisco State University (SF State) seem to think so. 

The study titled "Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response" was recently published in the journal NeuroRegulation.

Math anxiety, as the name suggests, describes feelings of stress and nervousness when a child or adult is faced with solving a math problem. This anxiety kicks in as a response to perceiving a threat related to their performance.

For instance, a stereotype threat like being told from a young age that boys fare better than girls at math, or experiencing pressure to succeed due to a discouraging teacher.  

"I always felt insecure about my math abilities even though I excelled at other subjects," said co-author Lauren Mason, a recent SF State graduate who helped design the experiment. "You build a relationship with [math] so early — as early as elementary school. You can carry that negative self-talk throughout your life, impacting your perception of yourself."

The research team recruited 125 college students and assessed their performance on a simple math test. They were tasked with subtracting 7 from 843 sequentially for 15 seconds.

Prior to the study, the participants filled out an anonymous questionnaire to measure their anxiety. During the test, they were either slumped over or seated in correct posture i.e. straight with shoulders back and relaxed.

A majority of the students — around 56 percent — reported finding it easier to do the math when they seated themselves in the upright position. 

"For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference," said Dr. Erik Peper, professor of health education at SF State. "The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly."

Previous studies have also found sitting up straight not only makes a person look more confident but also feel more confident. The researchers suggested the slumped down posture is associated with being defensive, and may unknowingly trigger negative memories. 

The power of good posture can extend out of the classroom, they added. An athlete at a big game, a musician at their own concert, a public speaker taking the stage — every person may be able to improve their performance in such situations by practicing better posture. 

Another study from researchers at Stanford University, published last month, also explored how math performance among students could be improved.

The role of teachers was highlighted in the findings, suggesting that many of them may be "math-traumatized" themselves and this could end up influencing the attitudes of students.