Albert Bandura’s Guided Mastery Proves that the Fear of Mathematics is Real But Treatable

Many students suffer from an acute fear of mathematics.

In fact, a study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas suggests that highly anxious mathematics students will avoid situations in which they have to perform equations that they deem difficult.

This appears to be true given the fact that in 2019, Universities in Kenya reported massive failures by students in mathematics and science sections of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams. At the time, more than 90 percent of candidates who sat for these subjects in the KCSE examinations failed. This means that less than 10 percent qualified for degree courses related to the sciences, according to a report by Vice Chancellors.

Three years prior, out of 570,278 candidates, only 63,813 scored C+ and above in mathematics.

Understanding Anxiety

The academic study of mathematics anxiety began as early as the 1950s when the term mathemaphobia to was used to describe a fear towards mathematics.

Years later, Albert Bandura, a Psychologist and a well-renowned Professor of Social Science at Stanford University revisited similar concepts in his studies.

Forty-nine years ago, Bandura was interested in phobias, so he carried out experiments on how to help people overcome their fear of snakes, also known as ophidiophobia.

He tried out a number of methods, but in the end, it was ‘Guided Mastery’ that worked best.

Guided mastery is defined as a therapeutic method of assisting clients in raising their self-efficacy, which is the extent or strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and achieve their goals.

With this in mind, Bandura had his patients stand outside a room where they could look in through a mirror at another person handling a snake.

Then after about 15 minutes, the person outside was encouraged to approach the room, taking small steps at their own pace, until finally, they were able to touch the snake.

Throughout the process, assistance was gradually withdrawn until eventually, the subject was able to remain with the snake by themselves. The subjects lost their fear of snakes.

Moreover, the patients developed a newfound confidence in other aspects of their lives. It later emerged that for those who took part in the experiment, difficult tasks did not seem so challenging anymore.

Students learn best at their own pace

Studies in the field of education have reaffirmed the theory that different students learn at their own pace. Bandura’s subjects, for instance, did not all lose their fear of snakes at the same time. With this in mind, teachers have an obligation to ensure that unhealthy competition does not have a place in their classrooms. They must ensure that students are given time and opportunities to catch up to their more advanced peers.

Overcoming one tough topic breeds confidence in tackling another

The most significant result of Bandura’s Guided Mastery was the fact that the subjects did not just lose their fear of snakes; they lost most of their other fears as well. After engaging in the guided mastery process, they did not see new and difficult tasks as unachievable anymore. Instead of running from challenges, they simply tackled them head-on. The study determined that students need to be constantly reminded of their past achievements in order to boost their self-efficacy in future challenges.

Watching a peer accomplish a task encourages another student to do the same

For fifteen minutes, Bandura’s subjects watched another person handle a snake in order to work on building up the confidence to do so themselves. Many students tend to need the same kind of encouragement before they can gain the confidence to take on a task that may seem difficult to them. Watching their peers accomplish seemingly tough math equations, for instance, can give them the emotional boost they need to do the same.

Social persuasion

Bandura’s subjects did not overcome their fears through negative criticism. They were encouraged. Teachers, parents, and guardians are encouraged to do the same.

Bandura’s Guided Mastery shows that social persuasion and positive reinforcement help students look forward to learning new things. His approach goes beyond the field of education and can be used to help learners tackle even some of life’s more challenging aspects.