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Associations between teacher and student mathematics, science, and literacy anxiety in fourth grade

2023-03-15
(Press-News.org) Educational Impact and Implications Statement We investigated associations among teachers’ and students’ anxiety in mathematics, science, and literacy. We found that teachers’ anxiety in mathematics and science was associated with the mathematics and science anxiety of their low-SES students. Results highlight STEM content areas as contexts in which transmission of negative emotions between teachers and students may take place, as well as highlight the particular impacts these processes might have on students from underserved socioeconomic backgrounds.

The recent Nation's Report Card of U.S. students’ academic achievement demonstrated that the majority of middle elementary students are below proficiency in mathematics, reading, and science, with proportions of proficient students lowest among underserved groups (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). This highlights the need for rigorous research into factors that contribute to elementary students’ achievement and persistence in mathematics, science, and literacy, including investigations into how teaching and learning processes might operate differently for students from traditionally underserved and underrepresented groups. Teachers have a strong impact on their students’ educational development (Chetty et al., 2011; Nye et al., 2004) and as such are high-leverage targets for investigation and intervention. It is not surprising, then, that a long history of research exists identifying factors that contribute to teacher effectiveness, with the majority of focus given to teachers’ technical skills and knowledge (Loewenberg-Ball et al., 2008; Mishra & Koehler, 2006; Van Driel & Berry, 2012). However, seminal work has revealed that while knowledge-focused interventions can indeed improve teachers’ knowledge, this does not often translate to improved student outcomes (Garet et al., 2016; Gersten et al, 2017). This suggests that such efforts are missing consideration of other important elements of teaching and learning.

Teachers are not only responsible for applying instruction and structuring learning opportunities in the classroom, but also for setting the emotional tone, providing emotional support, and serving as a key point of social reference for students. Thus, efforts to study and improve teacher effectiveness should include consideration of affective elements of teaching and learning such as teachers’ and students’ emotions and beliefs. Recent work along this vein has identified important connections among teachers’ emotions and their students’ emotions, classroom experiences, and outcomes (Frenzel et al., 2021), illustrating that this is a promising direction for teacher effectiveness research. However, there is still much to be learned as most studies of teacher and student emotions do not consider specific content areas and those that do typically focus on a single content area rather than comparing across multiple (e.g., Pendergast et al., 2015; Ramirez et al., 2018; Wilkins, 2008). This is a critical gap as evidence supports that teachers’ emotions and their impacts on students are content-area dependent (McLean & Connor, 2015, 2018). In addition, some preliminary work has suggested that teachers’ emotions might impact students differently depending on student characteristics (Beilock et al., 2010; Schaeffer et al., 2021), yet these types of effects are yet to be fully substantiated and described.

In the present study, we explored associations among teachers’ mathematics, science, and ELA anxiety and their students’ own anxiety in each content area, and how these relationships varied depending on student sex and SES. Our goal was to extend the current knowledge of direct emotional transmission (Frenzel et al., 2021) between teachers and their students, to describe how this transmission might operate differently across content areas, and to inform how students from traditionally underrepresented (females in STEM) and underserved (low SES) groups might experience this transmission differently. Through this investigation, we aim to provide further evidence that teachers’ and students’ emotions (and related affective experiences) are important to consider in research and intervention targeting teacher effectiveness, as well as to provide more nuanced information about in which contexts, and among which groups, these processes are most relevant. This information could inform novel approaches to teacher preparation and professional learning that explicitly center training on managing negative, and leveraging positive, emotions in teaching.

Research Questions and Hypotheses Guided by the above literature, we sought to address the following research questions: First, how does teachers’ anxiety about about teaching mathematics, science, and ELA directly relate to their students’ anxiety for learning in each content area? Given past findings that the anxiety of key adult socializers in children's lives can and does impact children's emotions (Foley et al., 2017; Udo et al., 2004), we anticipated that teachers’ anxiety would be negatively associated with students’ anxiety in each content area. Second, in which content areas, and for which students are the above relations most profound? Given past findings that teachers report more negative emotions for mathematics and science (Bates et al., 2013; Wilkins, 2008, 2009) and that female students and low-SES students experience more mathematics anxiety and are more influenced by the emotions of their teachers (Beilock et al., 2010), we anticipated that teachers’ anxiety would be most impactful in mathematics and science, and would have the strongest effects on female students and low-SES students in these content areas.

Conclusions Before interpreting our main findings, we first discuss an interesting pattern of associations noted in correlation analyses: Teachers’ years of experience were strongly, negatively correlated with their mathematics and ELA anxiety indicating that teachers with more experience reported lower levels of anxiety in these content areas. However, there was no significant correlation between teachers’ years of experience and their science anxiety. In unpacking this finding, it could be that teachers who are the most uncomfortable with mathematics and ELA may attrit from the field before reaching veteran status, or alternately teachers who have been in the field for longer may have had more time to build and adapt their skills, knowledge, etc., in mathematics and ELA. However, these processes may not be as present in science, and the reasons why this might deserve careful study when considered along with the fact that historically, a large majority of teachers report feeling unprepared to support their students’ learning in science (Weiss, 1994). We note that the role of teachers’ years of experience and potentially associated patterns of teacher attrition as related to teachers’ emotions and how they develop across the career could be fruitful avenues for future research.

Regarding our primary aims, some findings aligned with our predictions, and others were surprising. We did not detect the anticipated direct associations between teacher anxiety on student anxiety in any content area, nor did we detect any interaction effects based on student sex. However, we did detect interaction effects whereby teachers’ mathematics and science anxiety were most strongly related to the mathematics and science anxiety of their low-SES students. Before interpreting these findings, we first want to note some methodological aspects of this study that may have contributed to where and how findings surfaced; First, our lack of direct effects could be an artifact of our underpowered teacher sample. Second, given that much of the past related work providing evidence for the connections between teacher and student emotions has relied on teachers to report both the teacher predictors and the student outcomes (e.g., de Ruiter et al., 2019, 2020; Frenzel et al., 2018, 2020), it may be that utilizing data from both teachers and students leads to associations among variables surfacing differently than they have in the past work or being more difficult to detect.

As we interpret findings, we first offer that the effects detected here serve as further evidence that processes of emotional transmission do indeed occur in elementary classrooms. This finding builds directly on past work that has described these processes more generally (Frenzel et al., 2021) and is supported by a number of theoretical frameworks describing how individuals (especially children) notice and internalize the affective cues of those around them (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; Pekrun, 2006; Pekrun et al., 2007; Scherer, 1999; Vygotsky & Cole, 1978). While a direct effect (i.e., teacher-to-student effects) was not shown in the present study, our timing of variables (teacher emotions collected before teachers spent significant amounts of time with their students) and our analytic approach (all models controlled for students’ initial levels of anxiety) give us some preliminary insights into how teachers’ emotions might impact students. From a theoretical standpoint and aligning with our framing of this study in Sociocultural, Appraisal, and Control-Value Theories, the teacher is the main point of social reference for students and is the initiator of many of the social antecedents that are known to influence students’ learning-related emotions including structuring learning opportunities, providing instruction, and monitoring and responding to student behavior and engagement (Pekrun, 2000). The teacher is also the most accessible figure for intervention via structured professional learning opportunities. Thus, even in the likely case that bi-directional and/or reciprocal relations exist among teachers’ and students’ emotions, we view the teacher as the highest-leverage point of focus when attempting to study and intervene in these processes. Future research in this area could extend these findings further by substantiating the directionality of effects, and by identifying additional factors that might play indirect roles in how teacher and student emotions relate to each other. For example, future studies could employ observational methods to investigate if teachers’ emotions impact their instructional practices and/or observable effect in each content area, which might then have implications for students’ emotions and other learning-related outcomes.

Results also indicated that emotional transmission may occur most pointedly in STEM contexts and among low-SES students. We offer a few considerations for this set of findings. First, it could be that low-SES children rely more on their teachers as STEM socializers than do other students. It is well-known that the home and other non-school environments that low-SES children experience are more limited in their resources to support early STEM learning (Milne & Plourde, 2006), and as such that low-SES may respond more strongly to the affective cues of their teacher as they develop their feelings and beliefs about STEM. Second, we offer that teacher STEM anxiety may be heightened when teaching low-SES students. The majority of U.S. teachers report feeling unprepared to facilitate their young students’ STEM learning (Weiss, 1994), as well as feeling unprepared to support the learning and development of students from underserved communities (Johnston & Young, 2019). Further, the literature suggests that teachers at schools that serve higher populations of low-income students may not have access to hands-on and engaging STEM curriculum materials (Molina et al., 2016), which contribute to their anxiety. On a larger scale, teachers’ anxiety for teaching STEM may be particularly heightened when instructing low-income students due to the United States disparate emphasis on student STEM achievement; Nationally and globally, STEM achievement has been deemed the gateway of the future and a primary mechanism by which to maintain or gain global power. Annually, reports are published comparing U.S. science and math placements with other developed nations (e.g., PISA, Nation's Report Card, etc.) and illustrating that the United States regularly falls behind many other countries. The national and global pressure to produce STEM-succeeding students may result in teachers feeling disproportionately intimidated by the tasks of providing adequate STEM education to their students.

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[Press-News.org] Associations between teacher and student mathematics, science, and literacy anxiety in fourth grade